Help Protect Arakan Boat Refugees, Says UN

By Lawi Weng 2 November 2012

The United Nations refugee agency calls on countries neighboring Bangladesh to coordinate more closely on search and rescue operations after a boat carrying at least 100 people sunk last week.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on Thursday that an estimated 130 people were on board a boat which sank on its way to Malaysia. Six people were rescued while an unknown number of dead bodies were seen floating in the water after the vessel went down in the Bay of Bengal last Friday.

The survivors were taken to Bangladesh, according to the UNHCR.

“We are calling on countries in the region to coordinate more closely on operations for search and rescue at sea, and to jointly seek comprehensive solutions to the root causes of irregular maritime movements while keeping borders open and ensuring access to international protection for people in need,” the agency said in a press release.

Vivian Tan, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Bangkok, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the victims could have been Rohingya Muslims fleeing sectarian violence in western Burma.

“We have not talked to the survivors from the boat yet. Generally, these people are either migrant workers from Bangladesh looking for jobs elsewhere in Southeast Asia or there could be some refugees from Myanmar,” she said.

Advocacy group the Arakan Project, which fights for human rights for Rohingya people in western Burma, reported that some victims from the sunken boat were rescue by local Muslim fishermen on Wednesday.

“Seven people were rescued in the south of Maungdaw Township,” said Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project.

The UNHCR says that the number of refugees fleeing the region by boat had already reached a record high before communal strife erupted in Arakan State in June. An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people undertook the perilous voyage from the Bay of Bengal between October 2011 and March 2012.

There were at least four reported incidents of boats that ran into technical problems, leaving more than 20 people confirmed dead and over 100 still missing from November 2011 to January this year. There are fears that more irregular boat movements could take place in the Bay of Bengal as the traditional “sailing season” of economic migrants begins in November.

The UNHCR expressed concern over the recent sectarian violence in Arakan State and said that if the unrest is not brought under control, more people could resort to dangerous journeys by sea in search of sanctuary.

“The volatile situation in Myanmar’s Rakhine [Arakan] State risks pushing many more people to leave than in previous years, with potentially destabilizing effects in other countries,” said James Lynch, UNHCR’s Regional Coordinator for Southeast Asia.

To restore law and order in Arakan State, meanwhile, the Burmese government has detained more than 1,000 people who were allegedly involved in the recent violence and even confiscated knives and tools that could be used as weapons from local people.

The government reported on Wednesday that 89 people were killed, 136 injured and at least 32,000 made homeless when more than 5,000 houses were burned down from Oct. 21-30.