RANGOON—The United Nations refugee agency has called on Bangladesh to open its borders to Rohingya Muslims fleeing communal violence in western Burma by sea.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a statement on Tuesday expressing grave concerns over recent boat tragedies in the Bay of Bengal involving people attempting to escape sectarian conflict in Arakan (Rakhine) State.
Vivian Tan, the spokesperson for the UNHCR in Asia, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday, “With the recent intercommunal violence in Rakhine State in June and October this year, more people seem to be risking their lives on smugglers’ boats leaving the Bay of Bengal in the hope of finding safety and a better life in Southeast Asia.
“While the violence has eased for now, tensions continue to run high and we fear that more people could be driven by desperation to embark on dangerous boat journeys in the coming weeks and months.”
The UNHCR made the statement after reports emerged that Rohinyga Muslims from Arakan State were among around 240 people in two boats that sank in the Bay of Bengal two weeks ago. Official sources suggest that more than 40 people were rescued from the two boats with an estimated 200 people still missing.
According to the UNHCR, Bangladesh has registered some 30,000 Rohingya in two official camps near Cox’s Bazar in recent years, but there are still an estimated 200,000 who remain unregistered and living in dire conditions in makeshift shelters.
Bangladeshi authorities announced in June 2012 that they would close the border with Burma and the UNHCR has since been appealing to both governments to keep the frontier open for humanitarian reasons.
“We recognize that Bangladesh has borne the brunt of hosting Rohingya refugees for more than 20 years, and we are ready to provide support to the government and people of Bangladesh to continue this long tradition of hospitality towards refugees,” said Tan.
UNHCR also urged the Burmese government to take urgent action to address some of the main push factors, especially issues connected with citizenship and statelessness in relation to the Rohingya. The recent communal violence which erupted in June has so far killed at least 100 people, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced more than 110,000 people, according to official figures.
The UN warns that the recent two incidents of vessels sinking marks an alarming start to the traditional “sailing season” in the Bay of Bengal, when a mix of asylum-seekers and irregular migrants risk their lives on fishing boats in the hope of finding safety, employment and a better life in neighboring countries.
The UNHCR estimates that 7,000 to 8,000 people left from the Bay of Bengal during the previous sailing season from October 2011 to March 2012.