Ban urges borders and ports be kept open to thousands stranded at sea in Southeast Asia

Fishing boats head out into the Bay of Bengal. UNHCR fears thousands could be stranded on smugglers’ boats between the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca and in need of rescue. Photo: UNHCR/S. H. Omi

New York, 14 May 2015 – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today expressed alarm that some Southeast Asian countries may be refusing entry to several thousand people believed to be stranded on smugglers’ boats in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca, and urged leaders in the region to keep their borders and ports open.

“The Secretary-General is concerned about the crisis evolving in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca, where several thousand people are believed to be stranded on smugglers’ boats,” said a statement issued through his spokesperson. “He is alarmed by reports that some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants.”

In the statement, Mr. Ban also urged governments in the region to ensure that the obligation of rescue at sea is upheld and the prohibition on ‘refoulement’ is maintained. Refoulement is the forcible return of individuals to their country of origin where they could face persecution.

The Secretary-General “also urges Governments to facilitate timely disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need,” the statement said.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also expressed alarm at reports suggesting that Indonesia and Malaysia may have pushed back boats carrying vulnerable people from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

UNHCR said it has asked countries in Southeast Asia to approach this issue as a regional one with real human consequences and has offered to support States to interview the different groups and to help 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.

In his statement today, the Secretary-General said he “has taken note of the efforts to organize a regional summit and calls on all leaders of Southeast Asia to intensify individual and collective efforts to address this worrying situation and tackle the root causes, of which the push factors are often human rights violations.”

“In this regard, he reminds States of their obligations under international law; he emphasizes the need for a timely, comprehensive, rights-based, predictable and effective response,” according to the statement.