Ninety-seven fleeing Myanmar for a better life died of starvation and dehydration on drifting boat, say survivors of two-month ordeal
Men rescued from a drifting boat lie on the floor of the emergency room of a Sri Lankan navy vessel after being rescued at sea. Photo: EPA
Myanmese asylum seekers rescued from a sinking ship by the Sri Lankan navy have told how they dumped nearly 100 bodies overboard, shipmates who died of starvation and dehydration during a nightmarish voyage, Sri Lankan police said.
Sailors rescued 31 men and a boy, thought to be Muslim Rohingya, on February 16 when their wooden ship began to sink about 250 nautical miles off Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast, Sri Lanka’s navy said on its website.
Their vessel had been drifting for weeks, its motors dead.
“They said they had carried food and water for only one month and they had been at sea for two months after the ship engine stalled,” police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said.
They said they had carried food and water for only one month and they had been at sea for two months after the ship engine stalled
“Their captain and 97 others have died due to dehydration and starvation. They also said they had thrown the dead bodies into the sea.”
The tragedy and its aftermath, with images of emaciated men on drips being treated on the deck of a rescue vessel, recall a series of deadly incidents in early 2009 that threw a spotlight on the harsh treatment of the Rohingya.
In the worst of those incidents, about 300 people died before the Indian coastguard rescued survivors from a drifting hulk. However, in that case, and others like it, the Rohingya had been cast adrift by the Thai Army after being loaded aboard powerless boats and towed out to sea.
The survivors of the latest incident said they were aiming to seek asylum in Indonesia and Australia and identified themselves as Muslims from a border village between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Jayakody said, without elaborating.
Fifteen survivors are still in hospital in southern Sri Lanka while 17 of them have been discharged and detained after appearing in court, Jayakody said.
The Rohingya are a widely persecuted Muslim minority from the border area between Myanmar and Bangladesh. An estimated 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar but are officially stateless.
The Myanmese government denies them citizenship, regarding them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which does not recognise them either.
Both nations deny the United Nations access to the camps where many Rohingya live. Other nations in the region also deny the United Nations access to Rohingya arrivals, preventing them from being assessed for refugee status. As a result, some have languished in indefinite detention for years, charged with no crime and impossible to deport.
An explosion of tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine since June 2012 has triggered a seaborne exodus of Rohingya.
Thailand’s navy blocked more than 200 Rohingya from entering the kingdom last month as part of a new policy under which they will be given food and water but barred from landing if their boat is seaworthy.
The United Nations estimates about 13,000 boatpeople, including many Rohingya, fled Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh in 2012.
On February 2, the Sri Lankan navy rescued 127 Bangladeshis and 11 Myanmese nationals in an overcrowded wooden vessel that had begun to sink 50 nautical miles off Sri Lanka’s eastern coast. One of those passengers died before help reached.
The members of this group of 138 people are still in a detention centre near the capital Colombo, police said.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse