New 'Boat People' Crisis Feared Once Rains End by UNHCR

Refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh are rescued by Aceh fisherman in Julok, East Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia, in this 20 May, 2015, file photo. Photo: EPA/STR

GENEVA — A fresh surge of refugees and migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh is expected to set out in smugglers' rickety boats for southeast Asia when the monsoon season ends in about a month, the United Nations said on Friday.

Boatloads of minority Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis escaping poverty at home were turned away or towed further from the shores of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia earlier this year, triggering a humanitarian crisis.

"UNHCR is calling for urgent action before the end of the monsoon season unleashes a new wave of people leaving on boats from the Bay of Bengal," spokeswoman Melissa Fleming of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told a news briefing.

"We expect this to resume again in about a month," she said.


In a report, the UNHCR urged regional governments to avert another crisis in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea by implementing steps agreed in May to boost search and rescue operations and establish safe places of disembarkation with better reception facilities.

"There are appalling conditions on these boats and a bit of ping pong, and real concerns about access to territory," Fleming said.

An estimated 31,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis departed from the Bay of Bangal by boat in the first half of this year, a 34 percent increase over the same period in 2014, the agency said.

In all, 94,000 people are estimated to have risked their lives making the journey since 2014. At least 1,100 others are believed to have drowned, including 370 so far this year.

Many who made it ashore were members of Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya minority who live in apartheid-like conditions in the country's western Rakhine state.

Myanmar does not recognize them as citizens, even though many have lived there for generations. The government refers to them as "Bengalis" and considers them illegal immigrants. It denies their claim that they are fleeing persecution.


The Thai government launched a crackdown on people-smuggling gangs in May after the discovery of mass graves of people who died from abuse or deprivation in smugglers' camps along the heavily-forested Thai-Malay border, a transit point.

"Last weekend's discovery of 24 more bodies in north-western Malaysia is a reminder about the ruthlessness of the smugglers," Fleming said.

Story: Reuters / Stephanie Nebehay