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U.N.: Indian Ocean claims hundreds as ‘one of the deadliest’ waters

Rescued Rohingya
Muslims sit at a Sri Lankan immigration detention center in Colombo on
Wednesday.(Eranga Jayawardena / Associated Press / February 20, 2013)

Los Angeles
Times
 February
22, 201
 By Emily
Alpert 


By the time
their rickety boat was rescued last week off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, nearly a hundred of the weakened
passengers had lost their lives – roughly three times as many as survived.

The starving
people had endured nearly two months at sea, trying to flee the western state
of Myanmar where hundreds were slain last year, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday.
The Rohingya Muslims say they undertook the arduous journey out of fear for
their lives.

The outpouring of
Rohingya from western Myanmar and Bangladesh refugee camps has made the Indian Ocean “one
of the deadliest stretches of water in the world,” the U.N. refugee agency said
Friday. It estimated that last year, nearly 500 out of 13,000 people fleeing by
boat in the Bay of Bengal perished. Reports of the dead are still being
tallied.

The exodus stems
from the violence that ravaged Rakhine state in Myanmar in June, as rival mobs of Rakhine Buddhists and
Rohingya Muslims attacked villages, torching homes and killing scores of
people. Human Rights Watch alleges that government
forces stood by idly during the bloody attacks, then joined in raping and
killing the disenfranchised Rohingya. Violence erupted again in October.

Between episodes
of violence, the Rohingya grapple with entrenched discrimination in Myanmar,
also known as Burma. They are largely barred from citizenship in the country,
where many see them as interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh. Dhaka also
rejects them, leaving them essentially stateless. As thousands tried to flee
the bloodshed, Bangladesh repeatedly brushed their boats away, saying it already
hosted hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.

After the latest
boat was rescued off Sri Lanka, survivor Shofiulla told the Associated Press
that the Thai navy ran across them in the middle of their journey, only to
strip their boat of its engine, leaving them to drift another 25 days. The Thailand Defense Ministry rejected the allegation,
telling the news agency it was “not possible.”

Thailand has also been criticized for arresting people fleeing
from Myanmar, but is now allowing the immigrants to stay for six months under
temporary protection. Roughly 1,700 of them have arrived in Thailand in recent
months, according to the United Nations; another 1,800 have landed recently in Malaysia.

The U.N. refugee
agency applauded Sri Lanka for aiding the survivors who were rescued Saturday.
The Sri Lankan navy also rescued roughly 130 people, believed to be coming from
Myanmar and Bangladesh, earlier this month. The Sri Lankan Daily News reported
that officials do not plan to bring charges against the latest group of fleeing
Rohingya, but an immigration official told the Associated Press that it was
working to start sending them back to Myanmar.