UN, US Urge Action After Rohingya Boat Accident

By Samantha Michaels 6 November 2013

RANGOON — The UN agency for refugees has called for action by the Burma government after a boat of about 70 Rohingya Muslims capsized off the coast of Arakan State over the weekend, leaving dozens dead or missing.

A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said only eight survivors had been reported so far after the overloaded boat sank early on Sunday in the Bay of Bengal, reportedly en route to Bangladesh. It was the latest in a series of boat accidents off Burma’s west coast involving members of the Rohingya minority group.

“As with recent boat disasters on the Mediterranean, UNHCR’s worry is that similar tragedies will follow unless actions are taken by concerned countries to address the causes and reduce the risks for those involved in dangerous journeys by sea,” Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday, according to a report on the UNHCR website.

“2013 is by all accounts one of the worst years in terms of deadly incidents at sea,” he said.

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled from Buddhist-majority Burma after two bouts of communal violence last year in Arakan State left about 200 people dead and 140,000 others displaced. Buddhists and Muslims were both affected by the violence, but the vast majority of victims were Rohingya, who are widely seen by Arakanese Buddhists as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, although many trace their roots back in Burma for generations.

The United States also on Tuesday said it was “deeply saddened” by news of the recent boat accident and called on the Burma government to act to avert similar accidents in the future.

“We remain deeply concerned about the security and humanitarian conditions of all vulnerable populations in Rakhine [Arakan] State,” the US Embassy in Rangoon said in a statement. “We urge the government to coordinate with local authorities as well as organizations involved in humanitarian assistance in the area to ensure the protection of vulnerable populations and develop durable solutions for their condition.”

The UN refugee agency called on Burma to address the root causes of the outflow of Rohingya, including by addressing a lack of development in Arakan State, the second-poorest state in the country. Edwards also urged the government to “resolve the statelessness of the Rohingya population.”

“In parallel, we are appealing to countries in the region to strengthen search and rescue operations to prevent further loss of life at sea,” he said. “We also urge regional governments to harmonize disembarkation and reception conditions and to offer temporary protection to people in need of international protection while durable solutions are sought.”

The number of boat departures from the Bay of Bengal has risen dramatically since clashes first broke out in June last year, with unverified reports suggesting that 24,000 people left on boats from Burma and Bangladesh in the first eight months of this year, the UN refugee agency says.

Last week the agency said it feared more people would begin setting out to sea in search of a better life as the rainy season in Burma comes to an end. It said more than 1,500 people boarded boats in north Arakan State in the last week of October alone.

Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have continued in western Burma this year. The latest outbreak of violence occurred on Saturday, with Muslim men allegedly killing a Buddhist woman in Pauktaw Township after a Muslim man was found dead earlier in the day.

On Monday, the legislature in Naypyidaw called for attention to the security situation in Arakan State. Khin Saw Wai, a lawmaker from the Rakhine Nationals Progressive Party (RNPP), asked the government to urgently improve security, immigration and administration measures in the state, according to the state-run media.

The deputy minister for border affairs, Maj-Gen Maung Maung Ohn, replied that the government had implemented short-term and long-term plans for peace and stability in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Tuesday. Both townships are heavily populated by Rohingya Muslims.

The newspaper added that the deputy minister said the government had worked to improve socio-economic conditions in Arakan State, and that Maungdaw “enjoyed community peace.”

At the end of last month, dozens of Muslims in Maungdaw were reportedly sentenced to prison for destroying property during communal clasheslast year. Throughout the state, the majority of those detained since violence began in June last year were Rohingya, according to the UN special rapporteur on human rights.