Bengal Refugees Risk Death to Escape Violence

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SITTWE, Myanmar – In a press release on November 1, 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed great concern for a large populace of refugees the UNHCR predicts will attempt to sail the Bay of Bengal to escape their violence-stricken homelands.The Rakhine state in Myanmar is expected to have the most fleeing refugees. People living in the Rakhine State began experiencing poor living conditions in June of 2012 when clashing disputes began between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

According to Sam McNorton, UNHCR spokesperson, the fleeing refugees are desperately seeking a way to escape, primarily due to overall insecurity and the difficult access to healthcare services. The solution for a majority of the refugees is coming to light as the rainy season is ending. These people will attempt to sail the waters of the Bay of Bengal, despite its known risk; the boats used to sail are often poorly made.

On Friday, one spokesman described the start of sailing season as a, “deadly time when thousands of desperate people from Myanmar’s Rakhine state risk their lives on rickety boats to find safety and stability elsewhere.”  Smuggling exploitation is also increasing, which poses an additional concern for the UNHCR.For several groups, the Rohingya in particular, the only way to escape is by boat. For many people living in the Rakhine State, it is nearly impossible to enter a bordering nation, as they do not have valid travel or citizenship documentation. Additionally, many groups fear arrest by authorities if they try to cross into another nation.

Since the fighting started in June of 2012, the number of boats journeying into the bay has risen tremendously. UNHCR reported that more than 1,500 people departed in boats off the coast of Northern Rakhine over a four day period last week. Although data can’t be completely verified, it is estimated that from June to December last year, more than 14,000 people departed from Myanmar to Bangladesh. Over the course of January to August of 2013, an additional 24,000 people set sail. Since the start of the year, already 400 people have died.

Officials spoke out about their concern, and measures they believe need to be taken. “UNHCR believes the Myanmar Government and international community needs to redouble efforts to promote reconciliation and economic development in the Rakhine state for the benefit of all communities, and pursue practical measures to ensure basic rights so that the Rohingya could lead normal lives where they are,” explained McNorton.

The UNHCR believes by adopting a comprehensive, peaceful approach that is rooted in coordination and cooperation, outcomes and solutions can be realized. UNHCR is working on several initiatives that encourage cooperation.

– Laura Reinacher

Sources: UNHCR, United Nations

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