By the time their rickety boat was rescued last week off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, nearly a hundred of the weakened passengers had lost their lives – roughly three times as many as survived.
The starving people had endured nearly two months at sea, trying to flee the western state of Myanmar where hundreds were slain last year, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday. The Rohingya Muslims say they undertook the arduous journey out of fear for their lives.
The outpouring of Rohingya from western Myanmar and Bangladesh refugee camps has made the Indian Ocean “one of the deadliest stretches of water in the world,” the U.N. refugee agency said Friday. It estimated that last year, nearly 500 out of 13,000 people fleeing by boat in the Bay of Bengal perished. Reports of the dead are still being tallied.
The exodus stems from the violence that ravaged Rakhine state in Myanmar in June, as rival mobs of Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims attacked villages, torching homes and killing scores of people. Human Rights Watch alleges that government forces stood by idly during the bloody attacks, then joined in raping and killing the disenfranchised Rohingya. Violence erupted again in October.
Between episodes of violence, the Rohingya grapple with entrenched discrimination in Myanmar, also known as Burma. They are largely barred from citizenship in the country, where many see them as interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh. Dhaka also rejects them, leaving them essentially stateless. As thousands tried to flee the bloodshed, Bangladesh repeatedly brushed their boats away, saying it already hosted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.
After the latest boat was rescued off Sri Lanka, survivor Shofiulla told the Associated Press that the Thai navy ran across them in the middle of their journey, only to strip their boat of its engine, leaving them to drift another 25 days. The Thailand Defense Ministry rejected the allegation, telling the news agency it was “not possible.”
Thailand has also been criticized for arresting people fleeing from Myanmar, but is now allowing the immigrants to stay for six months under temporary protection. Roughly 1,700 of them have arrived in Thailand in recent months, according to the United Nations; another 1,800 have landed recently in Malaysia.
The U.N. refugee agency applauded Sri Lanka for aiding the survivors who were rescued Saturday. The Sri Lankan navy also rescued roughly 130 people, believed to be coming from Myanmar and Bangladesh, earlier this month. The Sri Lankan Daily News reported that officials do not plan to bring charges against the latest group of fleeing Rohingya, but an immigration official told the Associated Press that it was working to start sending them back to Myanmar.