UNHCR Concerned about Life-Threatening Boat Journeys for Asylum-seekers Finding Safety

Kuala Lumpur, 12 December 2014 - UNHCR has expressed concern about the dangers of irregular boat movements in the Bay of Bengal which involve potential asylum-seekers and refugees. This comes as an international forum on protection at sea concluded in Geneva on Thursday.

The outflow of people from the Bay of Bengal is not new, but numbers have been rising steadily. Departures tend to peak after the rainy season. Between October and November this year, some 21,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis set sail to Southeast Asia, mainly to Thailand and Malaysia. This figure is a 37 per cent higher than over the same period last year.

About 10 per cent of this year’s departures were women. One out of every three arrivals interviewed by UNHCR in Thailand and Malaysia was a minor under 18 years of age. Children as young as eight years old have travelled on their own. Many are subject to exploitation in the hands of smugglers and human traffickers.

 “We are shocked by the accounts of violence that people suffer at the hands of smugglers and traffickers. Survivors describe armed crews beating and starving them of food and water on the overcrowded boats and in smugglers’ camps in Thailand. Hundreds of people have died as a result,” said Richard Towle, UNHCR Representative in Malaysia.

Many of those who arrive in Malaysia are in an extremely poor physical state. This year alone, nearly 200 Rohingya arrivals in Malaysia have been diagnosed with beri beri. This form of Vitamin B1 deficiency is caused by poor diet and likely exacerbated by long-term confinement in smugglers’ camps. Many of them cannot walk and have to undergo months of rehabilitation before they can get back on their feet.

“The problem transcends national boundaries and can only be addressed through the concerted common action between States, supported by UNHCR and others,” said Towle.

UNHCR is also concerned that boat arrivals are systematically arrested and detained in some States – sometimes indefinitely. People seeking asylum are not committing a criminal act, and indefinite and mandatory forms of detention are prohibited under international law.

“Detention is known to have negative and often serious physical and psychological consequences for refugees and asylum-seekers who are already traumatized by the conditions they fled and the abuse they suffered en route,” said Towle.

Some governments increasingly see keeping foreigners out as being a higher priority than upholding asylum, said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, in a December 10 press statement to launch UNHCR’s 2014 High Commissioner’s Dialogue – an informal policy discussion forum whose focus this year is Protection at Sea.

“This is a mistake, and precisely the wrong reaction for an era in which record numbers of people are fleeing wars,” Guterres said. “Security and immigration management are concerns for any country, but policies must be designed in a way that human lives do not end up becoming collateral damage.”

UNHCR stated that the clandestine nature of these sea crossings makes reliable comparisons with previous years difficult, but available data globally points to a record high in 2014. According to estimates from coastal authorities and information from confirmed interdictions and other monitoring, at least 348,000 people have risked such journeys worldwide since the start of January. Historically, a principal driver has been migration, but in 2014 the number of asylum-seekers involved has grown.

In a joint statement issued by UNHCR together with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the International Maritime Organization (IMO) the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the agencies warned that the time-honoured tradition of rescue at sea enshrined in international law is in jeopardy.

The agencies emphasized that important conventions establish the obligation of a ship’s captain to render assistance to people in distress at sea and of States to coordinate and cooperate to deliver those rescued at sea to a place of safety within a reasonable time. These obligations apply regardless of the migration status of the persons in distress at sea.

While much media and public attention has focused on the irregular or criminal nature of this maritime migration, the agencies stressed that the people undertaking these journeys are not criminals. The criminals are those exploiting them and violating their human rights for profit.

Robust action to combat criminal networks is crucial, but tackling migrant smuggling and the associated corruption is only part of the equation. The real root causes of irregular maritime migration, which include lack of access to safe and regular migration channels, must also be rigorously tackled. Without credible alternative options to escape desperation, people will continue to place their lives and those of their families at risk by making unsafe boat journeys.

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