The United Nations refugee agency has said it is “extremely alarmed” at reports suggesting that Indonesian and Malaysian authorities have pushed back boats carrying numerous migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Indonesian navy stated that it had escorted a boat out to sea on Monday in a move which may signify a change in the Government’s overall policy. Similarly, Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency yesterday announced that it would prohibit foreign ships from docking unless they are unseaworthy and sinking.
“The first priority is to save lives. Instead of competing to avoid responsibility, it is key for States to share the responsibility to disembark these people immediately,” said Volker Türk, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, in a press release.
“Sea crossings are a symptom of desperation as people are left with no other choice but to risk their lives,” Mr. Türk continued, as he reiterated the UNHCR’s global call for legal alternatives to access protection and safety.
“Nobody should have to put their lives into the hands of ruthless smugglers.”
The UNHCR press release comes just one week after the agency published its Irregular Maritime Movements in South-East Asia report documenting an alarming rise in the number of Rohingya and Bangladeshis being smuggled across the Bay of Bengal and towards Thailand’s border with Malaysia in the three-month period spanning January to March 2015. Estimates now place the number of those crossing one of the world’s most dangerous sea routes at 25,000.
In addition, the UN refugee agency said it believed that several thousand people remain stranded on smugglers’ boats in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca, likely abandoned by their crews amid government crackdowns against traffickers.
Based on survivor accounts, UNHCR estimates that 300 people died at sea in the first quarter of 2015 as a result of starvation, dehydration or abuse by boat crews. One survivor, the agency’s report says, compared his 62-day experience at sea to being in a graveyard and said he lost hope of reaching shore alive.
UNHCR added that it was urging governments throughout South-east Asia to facilitate disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open in an effort to prevent a humanitarian crisis at sea.
The growing problem of irregular migration must be approached as a regional question with “real human consequences” and highlights the “urgent need for regional cooperation to address the challenge of irregular maritime movements,” the agency concluded.