According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 1,100 Bangladeshis and Rohingyas drowned in the Indian Ocean between January 2014 and June 2015, and the number of attempted crossings is expected to increase. 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.
UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a press briefing in Geneva that, in the first six months of this year, some 31,000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis departed from the Bay on smugglers' boats. This marks a 34-percent increase over the same period last year, and brings to 94,000 the estimated number of people who have risked their lives making the dangerous voyage since 2014.
Survivors interviewed by UNHCR detail long and difficult journeys by land and sea, and often claim to have been towed or guided by authorities from one territorial water to another. At least 5,000 people were abandoned at sea by smugglers in May and eventually disembarked in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. Another 1,000 people remain unaccounted for but may have disembarked without the knowledge of the authorities. At least 70 people are estimated to have died on the boats that were abandoned in May.
Of those disembarked, most of the Bangladeshi nationals have been assisted home with the support of their government. The Rohingya, who cannot return to Myanmar at the moment, remain in the countries in which they were landed. UNHCR's appeal for $13m to respond and seek solutions to the recent maritime crisis is only 20% funded. More funds are needed to enhance protection interventions for the Rohingya population in host countries, and to meet the humanitarian, human rights and development needs in source countries.
With the next "sailing season" expected to start soon UNHCR is working on an information campaign warning potential travellers of the risks of getting on smugglers' boats. At the regional level, said Ms Fleming, more must be done to put systems in place to respond to the need for rescue at sea and for safe and predictable disembarkation.
UNHCR looks forward to the establishment of a task force and is also participating in global discussions on migration and human mobility, including mixed movements by sea of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees.