[JURIST] The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) [official website] reported [press release] Friday that more than 2,000 have fled growing violence in the northern Myanmar state of Rakhine and Bangladesh aboard boats operated by smugglers in the Bay of Bengal. The UN agency has voiced grave concern of the lives of the refugees who have boarded boats operating by smuggler rings. There is only speculation on the destination of the refugees, with UN expecting most to land in other parts of South-east Asia. Last year, according to the refugee agency, more than 13,000 people were transported by smugglers out of the Bay of Bengal, with 485 confirmed deaths in a number of boating accidents during the same period. The UNHCR fears that the refugee crisis may increase following strife in northern Myanmar which has displaced over 115,000 people within the state, with tens of thousands residing in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. A UNHCR spokesperson urged regional nations to ensure humane treatment of the refugees and stated:
This growing boatpeople crisis calls for regional approaches and solutions. UNHCR encourages the government of Myanmar to intensify measures to address some of the main push factors…the lack of sustainable development and the resulting widespread poverty, the lack of rights for an important part of the population and recognition of the economic interdependence of all communities in Rakhine state.
The refugee population is predominantly Muslims from Rakhine state, many who fled to Bangladesh in the 1990’s during similar periods of inter-communal violence.
Concern over Myanmar’s human rights record has been growing recently, as the country has attempted to normalize relationship with the US. In October Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] called for an end to the sectarian violence in Myanmar [JURIST report] between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, calling on the government to do more to end the violence and protect the rights of the Rohingya, whose civil rights were effectively taken away with their citizenship in 1982. In August physicians for Human Rights reported that Myanmar’s army is still committing human rights abuses [JURIST report] against ethnic minorities in Karen state. Earlier that month, HRW accused [JURIST report] Myanmar security forces of human rights abuses against a minority religious community. In July UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also expressed concern [JURIST report] about both the continued violence in Myanmar and the country’s human rights abuses committed in dealing with it.