As many as 8,000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis are estimated to be stranded in boats in the Andaman Ocean and Malacca Straits without adequate food, water, or sanitation as regional authorities seem keen on enforcing a policy to push back the vessels unless they are sinking. Fearing arrests, captains tied to trafficking networks have in recent days abandoned ships.
Most are trying to reach Malaysia but the recent crackdown against human traffickers in Thailand, which has long been considered a regional hub for human trafficking, has made traffickers reluctant to bring people ashore, thus putting migrants at even greater risk. This comes after rickety boats carrying about 1,600 migrants - more than 500 in Indonesia and just over 1,000 in Malaysia - washed to shore in Indonesia and Malaysia over the weekend after their boats were also reportedly abandoned by traffickers.
In a DW interview, UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan says towing boats out simply shifts the problem to someone else, endangers people's lives and affects relations with neighboring countries. The UN refugee agency calls on these governments to allow the passengers to disembark and receive humanitarian aid.
DW: Thousands of hungry and desperate people are estimated to be stranded at sea and the authorities are refusing to let them come ashore, isn't this triggering a humanitarian crisis?
Vivian Tan: That is exactly our fear. Some of these people have been held captive at sea for weeks, possibly months. In recent days we've heard reports that some smuggling crews may have escaped and abandoned these boats, leaving passengers with little to no food or water. In addition to the risk of starvation and dehydration, we're also worried about people falling sick with symptoms of beriberi due to vitamin B deficiency, which if untreated could lead to death.
It's impossible to know how many people are actually stranded at sea and where exactly the boats are. There are varying accounts that they are in the waters between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Through various sources we've received some mobile phone numbers of people on board some boats but they're usually turned off, possibly because they're out of range or the battery has run out.
Tracking phones and finding boats are not UNHCR's area of expertise, so we have been passing the information we get to partners who we hope can act urgently on the information.
What do you make of the Indonesian, Thai and Malaysian authorities refusing safe haven to these migrants and potential refugees?
UNHCR is alarmed at these reports. We are working to verify if they are individual statements or official changes in policy. If every country pushes boats out to sea, where will these vulnerable people go? Towing boats out simply shifts the problem to someone else. It endangers lives and affects relations with neighboring countries.
This is a cross-border challenge that no country can resolve singlehandedly. That's why it's imperative that countries in the region work together to share this responsibility. The immediate need is to save lives and get these smuggling victims to land. Once they receive the life-saving assistance they need, we can work with governments and other agencies to discuss the next steps.
UNHCR is appealing to governments to urgently conduct search and rescue of the stranded boats, and to allow these passengers to disembark and receive humanitarian aid. We stand ready to assist as needed.
A lot of the people carried in the boats are believed to be Rohingya from Myanmar who are facing persecution. Wouldn't they be considered refugees under international law?
The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits refugees and asylum-seekers from being expelled or returned in any way to territories where their life or freedom would be threatened. This refers not only to the country the person has fled but also includes any other territory where he or she would face such a threat.
UNHCR has consistently advocated that people seeking asylum must be allowed to access the territory where they arrive.
How can these countries distinguish between asylum-seekers and migrants under the present conditions?
We believe they are a mix of Rohingya from Myanmar, and nationals of Bangladesh. They need help regardless of where they're from and what circumstances they left behind. But until they are found and taken to land, there is no way to ascertain their identity or needs.
Many countries in Southeast Asia have no national asylum systems in place. Where that is the case – e.g. in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand - UNHCR steps in to conduct refugee status determination.
Once these boat people are taken to land, we stand ready to support governments to interview those who say they fled persecution or conflict and wish to seek asylum. For example, in response to the arrival of several hundred people by boat last weekend in Northern Aceh, Indonesia, UNHCR has sent teams there to assess their needs and register those seeking asylum.
What do you urge Southeast Asian countries to do?
UNHCR urges these governments to act quickly to save the lives of victims stranded at sea. This involves stepping up search-and-rescue efforts, facilitating disembarkation and providing humanitarian assistance to the survivors in the form of shelter, food, water and medical care as many are likely to be in bad shape after their long ordeal.
Once these immediate needs are taken care of, we can work with the authorities and other relevant organizations to discuss how best to assess the survivors' needs and to find targeted solutions for different groups, be they refugees, economic migrants or victims of trafficking.
UNHCR is heartened to see the overwhelming offers of help from local communities and civil society in Indonesia and Malaysia where recent arrivals are hosted. Members of the public have been bringing food and clothing, while NGOs have been providing healthcare and other services.
What can the international community do to help resolve the crisis and aid those stranded at sea?
This is a regional problem that calls for regional solutions. Countries in the region – and those with expertise and resources beyond the region – need to cooperate and coordinate on rescue at sea and disembarkation. They need to ensure adequate living conditions for those rescued, and to work with agencies such as UNHCR on harmonized screening and referral procedures so that targeted and timely solutions can be found for these people.
While law enforcement in each country is clearly needed to weed out smuggling networks and bring perpetrators to justice, it is equally important to provide safe alternatives and legal channels for people to move so that they are not forced to risk their lives on these dangerous journeys on smugglers' boats.
Vivian Tan is spokesperson of the UN refugee agency UNHCR.