The United Nations refugee agency Tuesday called on governments in Southeast Asia to keep their borders open to people fleeing Myanmar by sea, following reports of boats sinking in the Bay of Bengal earlier this month.
"We are calling on countries in the region to strengthen burden-sharing in the face of this growing humanitarian emergency - we stand ready to support states in assisting and protecting these individuals," the chief spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Melissa Fleming, told journalists in Geneva Tuesday.
According to UNHCR, an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people set out into the Bay of Bengal from Myanmar during the previous sailing season, from Oct 2011 to Mar 2012. Each year, the sailing season sees a mix of asylum-seekers and irregular migrants risk their lives on fishing boats in the hope of finding safety and a better life elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
This year, there are fears many more could follow in the coming weeks, driven by desperation and hopelessness.
Fleming said UNHCR was "seriously concerned" at the recent boat tragedies in the Bay of Bengal, involving people fleeing insecurity and violence in Myanmar. In the last two weeks, there have been reports of two boats sinking off western Myanmar with an estimated 240 people on board - among them, Rohingya from Myanmar´s Rakhine state.
The north of Rakhine state has been the site of inter-communal violence over recent months. The violence first began in June, with clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, which eventually led the Government to declare a state of emergency there.
The violence reportedly left at least a dozen civilians dead and hundreds of homes destroyed, while internally displacing some 75,000 people.
Since then, at least 89 people have been killed and 35,000 displaced in the wake of a renewed upsurge in violence, beginning in late September, which also left more than 5,300 houses and religious buildings destroyed, according to UN estimates.
Fleming said the refugee agency cannot confirm any figures in relation to casualties from the reported sinkings "as we have no presence near the wreck sites, but available information is that more than 40 people have been rescued from the two boats." She noted that there were reports of bodies seen floating in the water.
While calling on other states to keep their borders open, the UN refugee agency is also alarmed by reports of countries either pushing back boats from their shores or helping them on to another country.
"We are appealing to these governments to uphold their long tradition of providing humanitarian aid to refugees instead of shifting the responsibility to another state," Fleming said.
The UN refugee agency is urging the Government of Myanmar to take urgent action to address some of the main factors prompting people to take to the sea, Fleming added, especially issues connected with the problem of citizenship and statelessness in relation to the Rohingyas in Rakhine state.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has previously urged the authorities in Myanmar to take action to bring an end to the lawlessness currently affecting the state.
According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), more than 27,000 people in all the townships affected by the state's inter-communal violence have received humanitarian assistance; however, it estimates that a total of $11 million will be required to cover the food needs for all 110,000 displaced people for the next six months.