Interview: UNHCR on the Rohingya Exodus

 
The boat people from the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh have become a hot potato among the countries of Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Indonesia say they will temporarily shelter for one year the migrants who land on their shores. Thailand, now ruled by a military dictatorship, has remained firm on its stance that the boat people cannot set foot on Thai soil, but the kingdom will host a multi-national summit on the issue on May 29.
 
The boat people comprise Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar fleeing state-sponsored ethnic persecution by the Buddhist majority and poverty, and Bangladeshis who are also fleeing poverty. 
 
Prachatai talked with Vivian Tan, the spokesperson of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Regional Office in Bangkok, about the role of UNHCR in the issue.  
 
 
 
Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have been urged to shelter the Rohingya. Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to shelter them for one year. What can the UNHCR do to help or support the camps?
 
UNHCR welcomes the commitment announced on Wednesday by the Foreign Ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to resolve the issue of the thousands of refugees and migrants stranded in boats in the Bay of Bengal and off the coast of Southeast Asia. This is an important initial step in the search for solutions to this issue, and vital for the purpose of saving lives.
We’re talking to the governments to find out more about the proposed shelters. What we have been helping with – and will continue to do so – is to screen and interview people among the arrivals who are refugees, to assess their protection needs and seek solutions for them.
 
Are some of the Rohingya boat people refugees from the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar that they fled because the UNHCR and Bangladeshi government did not take good enough care of them?
 
The people getting on smugglers’ boats in the Bay of Bengal are a mixed group. We estimate that roughly half are Bangladeshi nationals and half are Rohingya from Myanmar and Rohingya who have been living in Bangladesh for many years.
 
With regards to the Rohingya in Bangladesh: There are two official government-run refugee camps for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. UNHCR works in these camps to ensure the protection of 32,000 registered Rohingya refugees originating in Rakhine state, Myanmar.
 
In these two camps UNHCR teams coordinate with the local authorities and NGOs to provide shelter, relief supplies, health care, water and sanitation services, education and self-reliance activities. We also ensure that refugees’ documentation is up-to-date, and work on issues related to child protection and gender-based violence in the camps.
 
These refugees have been in exile for more than 20 years. Many were born in the camps, where movements are restricted and prospects are limited. Many Rohingya feel that there is no future in Bangladesh and no home to return to in Myanmar, especially after the June 2012 inter-communal violence in Rakhine state. 
 
In addition to the 32,000 Rohingya registered in the two camps, there are an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 unregistered Rohingya living outside the camps – in makeshift sites and local villages. UNHCR, which is not authorized to work outside the camps, is concerned about their protection as they have no legal documents or status. 
 
Years of desperation and hopelessness have driven many Rohingya in Bangladesh to risk their lives on smugglers’ boats. Many have joined Bangladeshi nationals as well as Rohingya from Myanmar on dangerous journeys in the Bay of Bengal to find safety and stability elsewhere.
 
Is the UNHCR looking to improve the conditions at the Cox's Bazar camps instead of establishing new camps in other countries as one of the solution?
 
UNHCR has been working with the Bangladesh authorities to improve living conditions for Rohingya refugees since the early 1990s. In the two government camps, our activities and interventions are done in consultation with the government, i.e. we cannot change structures or start projects without authorization. In addition to the services (health care, water/sanitation, etc.) outlined in the previous answer, in recent years we’ve successfully advocated for more durable shelters to be built and for refugee students to be able to study up to Grade 7 – the first time secondary education has been offered to the refugee population in 20 years. We’ve also been working with refugee committees to empower the community and help them become more self-reliant through vocational training and livelihood projects.
 
So the registered refugees benefit from these services in the camps but there are few prospects for them to lead productive lives due to the limitations. They cannot return to Myanmar and many are finding it hard to survive in Bangladesh. 
 
As mentioned above, UNHCR cannot work outside the camps but we have continuously expressed concern about the 200,000-500,000 unregistered Rohingya living in makeshift sites or local villages as they have no documents or legal status to protect them against exploitation, arrest or deportation. 
 
To stem the outflow of Rohingya from both countries, there is a need to address the root causes of flight. It will involve improving conditions in south-eastern Bangladesh and in Rakhine state.
 
I can’t speak much for the Bangladeshis who are leaving as economic migrants as that is outside UNHCR’s area of expertise.
 
There are reports that some of the boat people are not victims of human trafficking. They have instead voluntarily paid agencies to smuggle them to find jobs in other countries, especially Indonesia and Malaysia. From UNHCR findings, are most of the Rohingya boat people the victims of human trafficking? 
 
UNHCR is not mandated to conduct screening for victims of trafficking. The Thai government has a national system in place and has screened some Rohingya as victims of trafficking. 
 
There is a fine line between smuggling and trafficking victims. From our interviews with Rohingya who have survived the journey, some pay the smugglers to go to Thailand/Malaysia but are then held captive for ransom along the way. They are beaten until their family members can pay for their release. Increasingly we are also hearing about people who were abducted off the streets in Myanmar and Bangladesh and forced into the boats. Some were lured by false promises by the smugglers.
 
What does UNHCR think is the solution to the problem? 
 
The top priority is to save lives, to rescue those people still stranded at sea and bring them to shore for urgent assistance.
 
UNHCR and other agencies are ready to support governments in their response, including by helping to screen the arrivals into different groups – refugees, economic migrants, victims of trafficking, unaccompanied children, etc. From there we can assess their different needs and different solutions. 
 
While it’s important to crack down on the smuggling trade and bring perpetrators to justice, it’s equally important to make sure the victims of their exploitation and abuse get the help they need. 
 
To address the problem of irregular movements, there is a need to address the root causes in a comprehensive way. In Myanmar there is a need to promote reconciliation among communities, socio-economic equality, the realization of rights for all, and to address issues related to citizenship.
 
Another way to reduce incentives for people to risk their lives on boats is to create safe and legal alternatives for them to move, including through labour migration schemes, family reunification programmes, humanitarian visas, etc.