UNHCR fears dozens dead after boat capsizes off Myanmar, urges action

Eight survivors have been reported so far, but dozens of passengers, including women and children, are still missing and feared dead since the weekend tragedy.

Fishermen's haunt by day, smugglers' den by night, this waterway on the outskirts of Sittwe is reported to be a common departure point for smugglers' boats.  © UNHCR/V.Tan

YANGON, Myanmar, Nov 5 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Tuesday mourned the loss of life in the latest of a series of recent boat tragedies, this time off the western coast of Myanmar, and reiterated the need for government action to avert such incidents.

According to available information some 70 people, presumed to be Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine state, were on the boat when it capsized on Sunday morning off the state capital Sittwe. Eight survivors have been reported so far, but dozens of passengers, including women and children, are still missing and feared dead.

As with recent deadly 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. This year has been one of the worst in terms of such deadly incidents at sea.

Some 140,000 people remain internally displaced in Rakhine state following waves of inter-communal violence that started in June 2012. Those displaced include the Rohingya, ethnic Rakhine, Kaman and other communities. While most have moved into temporary shelters, the environment remains tense and longer-term solutions to displacement still need to be implemented.

Most Rohingya do not hold Myanmar citizenship and continue to face severe restrictions on their movements and suffer from discriminatory practices and denial of basic human rights. Many struggle to make a living and access services such as health care and education.

"It is unacceptable that people are driven by such desperation into life-risking journeys, often falling into the hands of ruthless smugglers. UNHCR stands ready to assist the government of Myanmar to address the root causes of this outflow, including seeking ways to resolve the statelessness of the Rohingya population," a UNHCR spokesman reiterated.

To promote reconciliation and peaceful co-existence in Rakhine state, the government and international community also need to address challenges such as the lack of development in Myanmar's second-poorest state.

In parallel, UNHCR is appealing to states in the region to strengthen search and rescue operations to prevent further loss of life at sea. "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 spokesman said.