The United Nations yesterday called on Myanmar’s new government to “stabilise” Arakan (Rakhine) State for all residents in an effort to stem the outflow of migrants and refugees.
Speaking in Indonesia at the Bali Process ministerial meeting, a senior UN official suggested that the “drivers and root causes of displacement” could be resolved by the new administration in Myanmar, where a preponderance of the region’s refugees originate.
“Unlike other regions in the world, there is hope in Southeast Asia that one country that has generated refugee flows in the past will now create the conditions for safe and dignified return for most of its citizens and long-term residents,” said Volker Türk, assistant high commissioner for protection at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). “There are huge expectations for the new government in Myanmar.”
Mr Türk urged the government to recognise “an appropriate legal status” for all inhabitants of Arakan (Rakhine) State, to promote civil registration and access to identity documents, and to remove restrictions on basic freedoms.
Yesterday’s forum in Indonesia assembled representatives from 45 states, the UN and the International Organisation for Migration for two days of talks aimed at addressing people smuggling, human trafficking and irregular migration in the region.
The meeting was expected to take a stronger line on direct action and humanitarian response in the wake of last year’s boats crisis when thousands of migrants and refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh were stranded at sea.
The conference culminated in an agreement to review the response to the crisis as well as a commitment to stronger protections, including search and rescue operations and safe disembarkation. The agreement was hailed as step forward in a region where most countries have not signed the UN Refugee Convention and have largely failed to cooperate on migration issues.
“Last year’s push-back policy on boats in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea has illustrated the disastrous consequences of ignoring the plight of the people who resorted to dangerous routes to escape serious threats to their lives. Governments have not lived up to their obligations to respect, promote, and protect the rights of refugees and migrants,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International interim director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement.
The region’s lucrative and well-worn smuggling route from the Bay of Bengal to the Andaman Sea saw over 33,600 departures in 2015, with an unprecedented number of migrants and refugees willing to undertake the dangerous voyages in the first half of the year.
The UN believes over 370 people died at sea last year, while those who clambered to shore suffered severe malnutrition and experienced kidnap, rape and abuse at the hands of smugglers.
While few have so far undertaken the same journey this year, the UN said that the region must be better prepared for such an eventuality, while also continuing to cooperate on the fallout from last year’s emergency.
Malaysia and Indonesia have been providing shelter to thousands of migrants and refugees from the boats abandoned last year under the agreement that they would be relocated after one year. With the deadline just weeks away, the UN is pressing for temporary stay arrangements that would include access to healthcare, education and work opportunities.
“Voluntary return is not an option for refugees involved in maritime movements from the Bay of Bengal,” the UNHCR said.
Indonesia continues to host 300 Rohingya refugees, who are largely denied citizenship in Myanmar. Another 700 Rohingya initially sheltered in Indonesia are believed to have been smuggled to Malaysia where they joined the largely unregistered Rohingya community, estimated by some to be over 150,000 strong.
Mr Türk at the UNHCR said a longer stay arrangement “not only stabilises the lives of individuals and reduces onward movements, but it also prepares people for eventual return when conditions are conducive”.
“Predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing arrangements are the only way to tackle these challenges,” he added.
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Source: Myanmar Times