Myanmar: UN plea to accept boat refugees

Updated On: Dec 17, 2012

Singapore refused entry to 40 stranded ship passengers last week after their original vessel sank off the coast of Myanmar on December 5 and sought to dock in Singapore waters.

It is not clear whether the passengers were Rohingya, a group that has been displaced by recent ethnic violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

The Nosco Victory, a cargo ship that rescued the group from the sea 30 hours after their boat sank, said that the passengers claimed to be from Myanmar but were not carrying identification papers at the time they boarded.

After sailing for 7 days, the Nosco Victory was hoping to dock in Singapore on Sunday, but was turned away after the country's Maritime and Port Authority denied the ship entry. The reason for this was that those rescued "did not appear to be persons eligible to enter Singapore," and that the captain had ignored advice from Indian authorities to take the survivors to the nearest port of safety, according to the Authority.

Refugee Protection

The incident has set off concerns that Southeast Asian governments are wary about accepting asylum seekers, afraid of sparking off an increased exodus from Myanmar.

Apart from Cambodia and the Philippines, no other Southeast Asian state is a  signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, which provides a basic framework for protecting people escaping persecution. The convention prohibits signatories from expelling recognized refugees, with some exceptions, or punishing refugees for illegal entry.

Singapore has previously said that it cannot accept Rohingya refugees should they attempt to land, but would help them depart for another country. It has said that its inability to take in refugees and asylum seekers is due to its small size and limited resources.

While not naming any particular country, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees urged the country as the nearest port to accept the passegers, saying that the group should be allowed to "safely disembark on humanitarian grounds."

A Growing Problem

The latest incident follows the sinking of at least two other boats carrying refugees from Myanmar in the past two months, including the capsizing of a boat of 130 refugees fleeing violence in October, in which all passengers drowned.

The government of Myanmar has been criticised for its handling of the Rakhine conflict, in which as many as 150 000 refugees have been displaced. Although many Rohingya have lived in the country for generations, they have been viewed as illegal immigrants by the population and face widespread hostility.

The Nosco Victory is now reported to have left Singapore's coast. It was due to arrive in Indonesia on Saturday the 15th, but Indonesian authorities at the time seemed cool to welcoming them.

Report: Singapore Rejects Myanmar Shipwreck Survivors (WSJ, 13 December 2012)

Report: UN plea to take Burmese refugees (The Age, 13 December 2012)

Report: Singapore cannot accept Rohingya refugees (CNA, 24 March 2009)

Related Article