BANGKOK: The UN refugee agency warned yesterday of a “growing humanitarian emergency” in western Myanmar, calling on neighbouring countries to open their borders to people fleeing the sectarian bloodshed.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement that it was “gravely concerned over recent boat tragedies in the Bay of Bengal” that have left dozens of people missing after two vessels capsized.
“UNHCR is calling on countries in the region to strengthen burden-sharing in the face of this growing humanitarian emergency,” it said.
Violence pitting Buddhists against members of the Muslim Rohingya minority has left at least 180 people dead in Myanmar’s Rakhine state since June and displaced more than 110,000 others, mostly Rohingya.
Although the tensions have eased since a new outbreak of killings last month, concerns are growing about the fate of asylum-seekers setting sail in overcrowded boats.
Rohingya have for years trickled abroad to neighbouring Bangladesh and, increasingly, to Muslim-majority Malaysia.
The violence has sparked warnings of a potential surge in refugees opting for the dangerous sea voyage.
“An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people left from the Bay of Bengal during the previous sailing season from October 2011 to March 2012,” UNHCR said.
“There are fears many more could follow in the coming weeks, driven by desperation and sheer hopelessness,” it added in the same statement.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority who speak a Bengali dialect in mainly Buddhist Myanmar, are seen by the UN as among the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Decades-old animosity between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims exploded in June after the apparent rape and murder of an ethnic Rakhine woman sparked a series of revenge attacks.
Myanmar views the roughly 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship -- an issue which the UN has urged the government to address.
Bangladesh has refused entry in recent weeks to boatloads of Rohingya fleeing the Rakhine violence.