More than 86,000 people have attempted the treacherous voyage from restive western Burma to perceived safe havens such as Malaysia since the outbreak of sectarian violence in mid-2012, according to the U.N, which said that 615 people are known to have died making the journey in 2013 alone.
As the U.N. released those figures, details emerged Thursday of bloodshed in the Bay of Bengal, with five people killed and at least 151 injured after traffickers opened fire on a boat carrying 330 illegal migrants.
Conflicting reports have emerged over whether the victims were Bangladeshi or Burmese, although they were quite likely Rohingya — a stateless group straddling the border between both nations and shunned by both. The U.N. dubs the Rohingya “one of the world’s most persecuted peoples.”
U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesman Adrian Edwards told a briefing in Geneva Tuesday that “The UNHCR estimates more than 86,000 people have left on boats since June 2012. This includes more than 16,000 people in the second half of 2012, 55,000 in 2013 and nearly 15,000 from January to April this year. The majority are Rohingya, although anecdotally the proportion of Bangladeshis has grown this year.”
The outbreak of pogroms against the Muslim Rohingya has left around 140,000 in squalid displacement camps. The Burmese government denies charges of “crimes against humanity” leveled by human rights groups, based upon its alleged complicity in violence perpetrated by Buddhist mobs.
Nevertheless, severely restricted access to food, medicine and education has forced many Rohingya to seek sanctuary abroad, often braving tempestuous seas in barely seaworthy craft. Upon arrival in new countries, such as Thailand or Indonesia, many get sold to traffickers and used as forced labor, often upon fishing boats.