Global refugee crises will hinder resettlement of Asian 'boat people': UNHCR

Reuters News
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Posted: May 22, 2015 10:29 AM

By Alisa Tang

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Resettling asylum seekers who are among the thousands of boat people in temporary shelters in Indonesia and Malaysia will prove "extremely difficult" due to the mounting refugee crises around the world, a U.N. official said.

Responding to international concern about thousands of migrants adrift at sea, Indonesia and Malaysia on Wednesday said they would offer shelter to 7,000 migrants, provided they were repatriated or resettled in third countries within a year.

"Those places are very, very precious. There are perhaps 100,000 people a year who manage to be referred for third country resettlement," said Alistair Boulton, UNHCR's assistant regional representative.

"Syria alone has four million refugees, including massive numbers of people in acute crisis, with unbelievable trauma," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Bangkok.

UNHCR estimates more than 87,000 migrants - mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshis fleeing persecution and poverty - departed between January 2014 and the end of March this year on smugglers' boats across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea to Malaysia and Indonesia.

They are starved, constrained and beaten, and may be held in Thailand for ransom before being granted onward passage or killed.

Many migrant boats have been pushed back to sea by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia this month. The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR estimated on Friday that some 3,500 migrants are still stranded on boats with dwindling supplies, and repeated its appeal for the region's governments to rescue them.

Repatriating people on the boats identified as Bangladeshi economic migrants would not be a problem, with Bangladesh willing to take them back, Boulton said on Thursday.

However, resettlement outside the region for those identified as refugees or stateless may encourage more people to join the exodus, he said.

UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime - the three agencies invited to a regional summit on May 29 in Bangkok to address the crisis - have shared with the governments involved a 10-point plan of action.

The plan is similar to one recently drafted for the boat crisis in the Mediterranean, Boulton said.

It calls for rescue at sea, disembarkation to safety, attention to humanitarian needs such as food and medical attention, and an evaluation of the individuals to determine whether they are economic migrants, refugees or stateless.

The final point of the plan urges Myanmar and Bangladesh, the source countries of the migrants, to address the root causes of the problem, including the issue of citizenship, which is a problem for the Rohingya in both Myanmar and Bangladesh.

There are about 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar's Rakhine state, and "perhaps between 200 to 500 thousand" in Bangladesh, living in makeshift shelters or among the population with no formal status, Boulton said. There are also 32,000 formally recognized Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Myanmar's Rohingya are not recognized as citizens, and have long complained of state-sanctioned discrimination, and persecution including forced labor, restrictions on movement and marriage and land confiscation. Myanmar denies discriminating against the group.

Boulton urged the international community to consider solutions to the crisis through regulation of the migration as a way of meeting labor demands in destination countries.

"If you look at who's going where and why - is there a way to formalize that, document people, bring it out into the light so it's a regularized movement?

"You cut the smugglers and traffickers out, but you provide people what they need, you provide states what they need, and the protection is alongside that."

(Reporting by Alisa Tang, Editing by Ros Russell)