UNHCR Statement on Reports of Boats Being Pushed To Sea by Authorities

Statement Attributable to Richard Towle, UNHCR Representative in Malaysia

14 May 2015

UNHCR is extremely alarmed at unconfirmed reports suggesting that Malaysia has pushed back two boats carrying 800 vulnerable people from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Today, government officials was reported saying that two boats with more than 800 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis on board, which had been found yesterday off the coast of Langkawi and Penang, had been turned away after officials provided them with fuel and provisions.

We are deeply concerned for the welfare of the people on board who have been denied access to safety. Many of them may have been on these boats for many days with no food or water and may be in need of urgent medical attention. There may be women and children and others with special needs.

Based on reports over recent days by Malaysian authorities, many on board are believed to be ethnic Rohingyas from Myanmar who need to be assessed if they are in need of international protection.

Conflicts and persecution will force more and more people to seek safety beyond international borders, and the action of pushing away boats carrying vulnerable people will do nothing to solve this.

As stated by UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Turk in a press statement issued from Geneva yesterday evening:

"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. Sea crossings are a symptom of desperation as people are left with no other choice but to risk their lives.”

We have made a global call for legal alternatives to access protection and safety. We believe that nobody should have to put their lives into the hands of ruthless smugglers.

In South-east Asia, several thousand people are believed to be stranded on smugglers' boats in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca, likely abandoned by their crews amid government crackdowns against traffickers.

We urge governments to facilitate disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open to prevent a humanitarian crisis at sea.

Once the humanitarian needs are met, agencies like UNHCR can support States to interview the different groups and target solutions to their specific needs, as those being rescued are likely to be a mix of refugees, economic migrants, victims of trafficking, unaccompanied and separated children among those being smuggled.

The current situation highlights the urgent need for regional cooperation to address the challenge of irregular maritime movements. Through the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, UNHCR has been advocating for coordinated regional responses to search and rescue, disembarkation, needs identification and solutions.

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