Inaction has been fatal, says UNHCR, as dozens of Rohingya refugees perish at sea

The refugees, numbering about 330 had set off on the journey in Cox’s Bazar, in southern Bangladesh, in February. After months at sea in desperate conditions, some 300 landed on the northern coast of Aceh, Indonesia, early on Monday morning. More than 30 people are believed to have died at sea.

“Their hazardous ordeal has been prolonged by the collective unwillingness of states to act for more than six months,” Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR Director for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement.

The UN agency noted that the Bali Process which was created by countries in the region to prevent such tragedies from happening, failed to save lives through rescue and disembarkation. It added the group of refugees had repeatedly tried to disembark over the course of the journey, to no avail.

“Refugees have reported that dozens passed away throughout the journey. UNHCR and others have repeatedly warned of dire consequences if refugees at sea are not permitted to land in a safe and expedient manner. Ultimately, inaction over the past six months has been fatal,” said Mr. Ratwatte

UNHCR staff in Aceh are supporting local authorities to assess the needs of the refugees. The immediate priority is providing first aid and medical care as required. All will be tested for COVID-19 in accordance with standard health measures in Indonesia for all arrivals.

Among those rescued, two-thirds are women and children.

Promise ‘remains unfulfilled’
The Bali Process was initiated at the 2002 Regional Ministerial Conference on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime held in Bali, Indonesia. It aims to address practical issues related to smuggling, trafficking and related transnational crime.

At the time of the ‘boat crisis’ in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, five years ago, which saw thousands of refugees and migrants – distressed at sea and denied life-saving care and support, Bali Process states acknowledged the need for a reliable and collective response to the regional challenge.

Having created a mechanism to convene governments from across the region for precisely this purpose, the promise of that commitment remains unfulfilled – Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR

“Having created a mechanism to convene governments from across the region for precisely this purpose, the promise of that commitment remains unfulfilled,” said Mr. Ratwatte, adding:

“A comprehensive and fair response necessarily requires responsibility-sharing and concrete efforts across South East Asia, so that those who permit disembarkation and bring those in distress ashore do not carry a disproportionate burden.”

A complex refugee crisis
The complex Rohingya refugee crisis erupted in August 2017, following attacks on remote police outposts in northern Myanmar by armed groups alleged to belong to the community. These were followed by systematic counter attacks against the minority, mainly Muslim, Rohingya, which human rights groups, including senior UN officials, have said amounted to ethnic cleansing.

In the weeks that followed, over 700,000 Rohingya – the majority of them children, women and the elderly – fled their homes for safety in Bangladesh, with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Prior to the mass exodus, well over 200,000 Rohingya refugees were sheltering in Bangladesh as a result of earlier displacements from Myanmar.

Burkina Faso: Over 535,000 children under five ‘acutely’ malnourished

Among them, some 156,500 children are “severely” malnourished, leaving them nine times more likely to die than well-nourished children, according to UNICEF.

“The aggravating factors causing the nutritional situation of children to deteriorate are primarily linked to the displacement of populations due to insecurity, reduced access to livelihoods and reduced access to health care and nutrition,” said James Mugaju, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Burkina Faso.

“The coronavirus pandemic has had a brutal impact on households and their ability to provide for the basic needs of their children. Children are paying the highest price, facing a triple crisis: security, health and food,” he added.

Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in west Africa, has over one million internally displaced persons – 60 per cent of whom are children, and 3.3 million suffer from acute food insecurity.

Worst affected regions
According to the survey, the town of Gorom-Gorom in the Sahel region and the Barsalogho site for internally displaced persons in the Centre-Nord region are worst affected, where children under five suffering from global acute malnutrition recorded 18.4 per cent and 16.1 per cent, respectively. The figures exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) emergency threshold of 15 per cent.

Equally alarming is the situation in Dori, Gorgadji, Bourzanga and Fada N’Gourma communes, all of which have a high prevalence of global acute malnutrition, ranging from 12.5 per cent to 13.6 per cent. Children in the Barsalogho, Kongoussi, Ouahigouya, Kaya and Matiacoali communes also have concerning prevalence rates of acute malnutrition, ranging from 8.6 per cent to 9.6 per cent.

Areas where children are particularly affected by acute malnutrition are also those with the highest number of acutely food-insecure families, said UNICEF, calling for intensified efforts to ensure the continuity of nutrition services to provide an integrated package of prevention and treatment of malnutrition to reach the children in urgent need.

“This is essential because good nutrition for children, from their first days and months, protects them from disease and infection, and helps them to recover when they fall ill,” said Mr. Mugaju.

UNICEF response
Well-nourished girls and boys ensure good physical and cognitive development, which will give them equal opportunities to grow up fulfilled and reach their full potential – James Mugaju, UNICEF

UNICEF and its partners have stepped up their response. Community health workers have been mobilized to travel to the most remote areas to screen and treat malnourished children at the community level, where they also provide advice on the best feeding practices for infants and young children, including in emergency situations.

The UN agency is also supporting health authorities and is strengthening efforts to procure and deliver therapeutic foods, such as milk and ready-to-use therapeutic foods, to treat acute malnutrition. More than 52,600 cartons or about 737 tonnes of therapeutic food have been delivered to healthcare facilities and 51,685 children with severe acute malnutrition have been treated since January 2020.

UNICEF Deputy Representative James Mugaju highlighted the importance of working together to support children.

“Well-nourished girls and boys ensure good physical and cognitive development, which will give them equal opportunities to grow up fulfilled and reach their full potential,” he said.