A large group of people on a boat

Stranded Rohingya boat people sit on the deck of an abandoned smugglers’ boat drifting in the Andaman Sea, May 2015. © UNHCR/Christophe Archambault

Five years on from the 2015 ‘boat crisis’ in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, in which thousands of refugees and migrants in distress at sea were denied life-saving care and support, we are alarmed that a similar tragedy may be unfolding once more.

We are deeply concerned by reports that boats full of vulnerable women, men and children are again adrift in the same waters, unable to come ashore, and without access to urgently needed food, water and medical assistance.

There is no easy solution to the irregular maritime movements of refugees and migrants. Deterring movements of people by endangering life is not only ineffective; it violates basic human rights, the law of the sea and the principles of customary international law by which all States are equally bound.

We call on States in the region to uphold the commitments of the 2016 Bali Declaration as well as ASEAN pledges to protect the most vulnerable and to leave no one behind. Not doing so may jeopardize thousands of lives of smuggled or trafficked persons, including the hundreds of Rohingya currently at sea.

As we have seen time and time again, in desperate situations – whether in search of safety and protection or basic survival – people will move, whatever obstacles are put in their way.

Saving lives must be the first priority. We recognize that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, States have erected border management measures to manage risks to public health. These measures, however, should not result in the closure of avenues to asylum, or in forcing people to either return to situations of danger or seek to land clandestinely, without health screening or quarantine. States can – and should – ensure that our common concerns relating to public health and security are matched with a re-affirmation of solidarity and compassion.

Faced again with the need to find a regional solution to a regional problem, as was the case during the 2015 crisis, it is important to build on the solid cooperation and planning that has already been undertaken by ASEAN and the Bali Process to address irregular maritime movements.

We call on States to continue and expand search and rescue efforts, and to ensure that landing procedures and reception conditions are safe and humane. Some States in the region have already demonstrated that health screening and quarantine arrangements can be implemented so that people can disembark in a safe, orderly and dignified manner. Search and rescue must be combined with arrangements for prompt disembarkation to a place of safety.

Now is the time for governments in the region to recall the commitments made in the Bali Declaration. We urge the Bali Process Co-Chairs to activate the Consultative Mechanism to convene affected countries and facilitate a timely and regional resolution of the crisis in the Andaman Sea.

We also call on States in the region that are not directly impacted to offer support to those States that do proceed with rescue and disembarkation.

IOM, UNHCR and UNODC reaffirm our support to States across the region to provide immediate assistance to asylum-seekers, refugees and vulnerable migrants, as well as to strengthen the broader response capacity to respond to irregular movements. UNHCR, IOM and UNODC have dedicated capacities that can be mobilized to assist States and local authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including support for initial health assistance, information dissemination, and where appropriate to ensure that quarantine procedures are followed.

In the longer term, a sustainable and comprehensive response to the movement of refugees and migrants cannot be achieved without concerted international cooperation. We encourage States to draw upon the Global Compact for Migration and Global Compact for Refugees to promote a sustainable and comprehensive response to the movement of refugees and migrants.

This includes establishing effective, predictable and equitable disembarkation arrangements anchored in a broader strategy with safe and legal migration options, including for family reunification.

In line with the United Nations Transnational Organized Crime Convention and its Protocols, signed by all States of the region, traffickers and smugglers should be investigated and prosecuted for their crimes in full accordance with international standards for human rights, while fully respecting the rights of victims. States should underscore the existing political commitment to zero tolerance towards the criminal elements facilitating movements and taking advantage of the vulnerable.

Equally, international action and solidarity are essential to tackle the drivers of refugee and irregular migrant movements, including statelessness, discrimination, deprivation, persecution, and other violations of human rights.

Without collective efforts to address these interlocking issues, this human tragedy will continue to unfold over and over again. We call on States to break this cycle now.


For further information, please contact:


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok

Catherine Stubberfield, stubberf@unhcr.org, +66 65 929 8062


International Organization for Migration (IOM)

Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok

Itayi Viriri, iviriri@iom.int, +63 917 890 8785


United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok

Rebecca Miller, rebecca.miller@un.org, +66 81 418 8468

Originally published by UNHCR on 06 May 2020

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