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Coordinated regional action urged to stop Rohingya deaths at sea: UN expert

December 22nd, 2022  •  Author:   Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights  •  5 minute read
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GENEVA (22 December 2022) – Appealing for the immediate rescue of Rohingya refugees in distress on a vessel in the Andaman Sea, UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews said regional governments in South and Southeast Asia should prioritise safety and human rights and ensure coordinated search and rescue operations. He issued the following statement:

“While many in the world are preparing to enjoy a holiday season and ring in a new year, boats bearing desperate Rohingya men, women and young children, are setting off on perilous journeys in unseaworthy vessels.

One such boat carrying more than 100 Rohingya refugees has been at sea for weeks, and is reportedly now close to Aceh, Indonesia. Its engine has failed and those on board are running out of food and water. It has been reported that 16 passengers have already died, including at least one child. I call on all relevant maritime actors to immediately and urgently coordinate search and rescue for this boat and ensure safe disembarkation of those aboard before any further loss of life occurs.

Too many Rohingya lives have already been lost in maritime crossings. Regional governments should prevent any further loss of life and urgently rescue and provide immediate protection to Rohingya stranded at sea. The duty to rescue persons in distress at sea is a fundamental rule of international law, is a norm of customary international law and is incorporated in international treaties. States must not push back boats out of territorial waters in an attempt to shirk international obligations.

I urge all governments from the region to develop and coordinate a more humane regional response to those fleeing the junta’s brutal violence, including the Rohingya. This requires an absolute moratorium on any deportations or pushbacks to Myanmar, and the need for coordinated search and rescue at sea in line with international human rights standards. The international community must step forward and assist regional actors to provide durable solutions for the Rohingya.

Increasing numbers of Rohingya have been using dangerous sea and land routes in recent weeks, which highlights the sense of desperation and hopelessness experienced by Rohingya in Myanmar and in the region.

While details remain unclear, at least two other boats, each carrying over 100 Rohingya refugees, have also embarked on perilous journeys.

Two weeks ago, a Vietnamese oil company vessel on its way to Myanmar rescued one sinking boat with 154 Rohingya refugees aboard. As they were close to Myanmar waters, they reportedly handed the group over to Myanmar authorities. It has been reported that those aboard were placed in migration detention in Myanmar and may now face criminal charges.

Last weekend, the Sri Lankan Navy rescued a third trawler in distress, carrying 104 Rohingya, including numerous children, some unaccompanied. I wholeheartedly thank the Government of Sri Lanka for this intervention to rescue these vulnerable Rohingya refugees.

Rohingya inside Myanmar who are unable to access sea routes have also been risking their lives by seeking out dangerous overland routes in an attempt to flee the country. Rohingya attempting to flee Myanmar who are detected outside Rakhine State are regularly charged with migration offences and jailed.

On 5 December, I was distressed to learn of credible reports indicating that the bodies of 13 Rohingya men and boys, reportedly aged between 16 and 20 years old, were found in the north of Yangon. Reports indicate they died from lack of oxygen inside a vehicle while trying to reach the border area.

All these tragedies point to unscrupulous smuggling and trafficking networks, some of whom are exploiting their desperation by putting lives at risk.

I also have learned that a court order to stay the deportation of 104 persons who arrived by boat from Myanmar in February 2021 in Malaysia has been lifted by the Malaysian High Court, putting these people at risk of being returned to Myanmar. I reiterate my call that there must be an absolute moratorium on any forced returns of refugees and migrants to Myanmar.”


The expert: Mr. Thomas Andrews (United States of America) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar. A former member of the US Congress from Maine, Andrews is a Robina Senior Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School and an Associate of Harvard University’s Asia Center. He has worked with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and parliamentarians, NGOs and political parties in Cambodia, Indonesia, Algeria, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine and Yemen. He has been a consultant for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma and the Euro-Burma Network and has run advocacy NGOs including Win Without War and United to End Genocide.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Comprising the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, Special Procedures is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Myanmar

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