UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is urging 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.
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.
In the context of the unprecedented current COVID-19 crisis, 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 notes and is encouraged by the Association of South East Asian States’ 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.
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.
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.