UNHCR calls for greater coordination to address refugees’ maritime movements

United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR) today called for greater coordination and
responsibility-sharing by states to address the maritime movements of
refugees and asylum-seekers in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

“We are increasingly concerned by reports of failure to disembark
vessels in distress and of the grave immediate risk this poses to the
men, women and children on board,” said Indrika Ratwatte, Director of
the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific of the UN refugee agency,
in a statement.

Search and rescue, along with prompt disembarkation, are
life-saving acts. The dire – and, in many cases, fatal – predicament
of thousands of refugees and migrants in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman
Sea in 2015 ultimately demonstrated the critical, humanitarian
imperative for solidarity and joint action to address threats to life
at sea.

“The 2016 Bali Declaration embodied these principles and outlined
the way forward to prevent another crisis in the Andaman Sea. We must
not return to such life-threatening uncertainty today,” Ratwatte said.

In the context of the unprecedented current COVID-19 crisis, he
said, all states must manage their borders as they see fit. “But such
measures should not result in the closure of avenues to asylum, or of
forcing people to return to situations of danger.”

UNHCR stands ready to support governments in carrying out
responsible disembarkation procedures and quarantine measures to
ensure that public health issues are addressed.

The challenge of irregular movement is not unique to Asia. Refugees
and asylum-seekers move through unofficial and often inherently risky
channels because it is the only option available to them. The reality
for many refugees is that persecution and threats to their lives and
well-being are more immediate than COVID-19.

UNHCR is encouraged by the Association of South East Asian Nations’
clear commitment to joint action and a whole-of-society approach in
the context of COVID-19.

“Leaving no-one behind is the only lasting means of ensuring that
we collectively beat this global challenge, and we are all only as
strong as our most vulnerable members,” Ratwatte added.

Saving lives at sea must be a collective effort, in which any one
state that rescues and disembarks refugees can draw on resources
pooled from other states in the region.

Predictable disembarkation and safe pathways for refugees in
distress strengthen public health by ensuring that whatever the manner
of arrival, people go through appropriate health screening.

It safeguards prevention measures rather than risking that people
will instead seek clandestine points of entry without going through
proper quarantine procedures.

Rescue at sea and allowing the persecuted to seek asylum are
fundamental tenets of customary international law, by which all states
are bound.

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Beyond the current COVID-19 crisis, a predictable and humane
disembarkation approach will remain critical. UNHCR is calling on all
states to uphold these life-saving obligations to refugees and
asylum-seekers, the statement said.