More Boat People Drown in Bid to Flee Burma, Prompting U.N. Call for Action

At least 70 are killed when their boat capsizes off the Burmese coast

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Stringer Indonesia / Reuters

Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Burma wave as they are transported by a wooden boat to a temporary shelter in Krueng Raya in Aceh Besar April 8, 2013.

After at least 70 people drowned over the weekend as they tried to escape hardship in Burma’s conflict-weary Arakan state. The latest tragedy has prompted the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to call on Burma’s government and the international community to do more promote reconciliation and coexistence in Arakan, where communal violence has displaced thousands.

The boat that capsized on Sunday was believed to have been carrying Rohingya Muslims, who represent the lion’s share of the 140,000 people displaced after several rounds of ethno-religious violence erupted in the country’s second most impoverished state in 2012. Sadly, the accident is the latest in a string of similar tragedies.

According to UNHCR, approximately 24,000 people have fled from both Burma and Bangladesh by boat during the first eight months of 2013, most of whom are believed to be Rohingya.  And more may be fleeing soon. As the rainy season ends, greater numbers of Rohingya may risk packing themselves into rickety vessels to take advantage of the calmer waters.

(MORE: Burma Accused of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ of Rohingya Muslims)

Within Burma, Rohingya are viewed by the majority of the country’s population as illegal immigrants and interlopers of Bangladeshi origin — even though Muslim settlements have existed in Arakan since the 8th century. Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 by the then-ruling military government. Following major bouts of violence in 2012, Burma’s reformist President Thein Sein suggested to a visiting U.N. representative the mass resettlement of the Rohingya to third countries as a possible solution to prevent further clashes.

The Rohingya have been regularly branded as one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world by the U.N. and international aid groups.  Those living in displacement camps in Burma are prevented from leaving the perimeters, which keeps people from working and their children from attending school.

“These restrictions are making it hard for people to survive and also the sense of hopelessness is growing,” UNHCR’s Vivian Tan told TIME.

In April, a government-backed commission suggested doubling the number armed troops in Arakan state in order to enforce segregation between Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists. It cited “bitterness” and “cultural differences” as the progenitors of the current crisis. But human rights activists say the government has failed to address systemic issues and ongoing rights abuses.

According to Tan, the government has yet to present a clear next step on moving people out of the camps and starting some type of reconciliation process that would allow for the divided communities to live together once more.

“Everyone is on a holding pattern right now, no one is sure what is going to happen next,” she said.

MORE: Adrift for Months, Starving Asylum Seekers Threw 98 Bodies Overboard