Sunday, November 4, 2012
First one body appeared, floating in the waters of the Bay of Bengal, then another, and another, until those on board the little fishing boat that had gone to their rescue began to lose count.
Those bobbing lifeless among the waves had set out the night before, so desperate to escape the growing sectarian violence in Burma that they were prepared to risk boarding the dangerously overcrowded boat.
At least 130 had clambered aboard, but the boat foundered – whether it capsized because of the weight of bodies or because it struck rocks remains unclear.
The sinking last week was the worst reported incident resulting from the outbreak of violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Burma. The death toll is continuing to rise amid reports of a deepening humanitarian crisis.
"The situation is dire. The UN is doing its best, but it is trying to find more funding to help them," said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an NGO working with the Rohingya.
With at least 32,000 people displaced by the latest violence – and at least 107,000 since trouble broke out in June – thousands have sought safety in refugee camps around the Burmese town of Sittwe. Those camps are at crisis point, according to Refugees International, which estimates that nearly a quarter of children were malnourished.
"Conditions in these camps are as bad, if not worse, than ones in eastern Congo or Sudan," said Melanie Teff, a researcher with the charity who visited Sittwe in September. "Child malnutrition rates are startlingly high. There's an urgent need for clean water and food. If further aid does not come through, there will be some unnecessary deaths."
In Baw Du Pha relief camp, where several thousand Rohingya refugees from Sittwe are surviving on rations and are severely short of medical care, Laila, 20, a mother of four, said: "I cannot give my baby rice when she needs it. We are suffering. When my daughter gets sick we have no money for medicine."
Compounding the need for essentials such as rice, water and oil, aid workers said refugees were facing a mounting psychological toll, with children bearing the brunt. "They lost their houses in the fires. Children cannot be left alone like before. So they're depressed," said Moe Thadar, a local Red Cross worker.
The death toll and fear of further violence have prompted many of the Rohingya to look for sanctuary in neighbouring Muslim countries. Many have concluded that the only realistic escape route is by sea. Thousands are reported to have been waiting for the end of the rainy season to put to sea. Those that have tried to get away have found that those countries are unwilling to accept them. Lewa said at least two boats had been turned back by Bangladesh last week and had returned to Sittwe.
"On Wednesday, we heard that about 7,000 people had arrived in Sittwe from Kyaukpyu [on the coast to the south] and Pauktaw [inland and to the east]. There were still about 900 of them sitting on the beach in Sittwe, while others had moved to camps or villages."
The UN has urged the Burmese government to tackle the causes of the conflict, prompting authorities to order people to turn in their weapons to police. It also urged Burma's neighbours to not to close their borders, but the appeal brought no immediate change of heart.
Some of those who have fled, such as the victims of last week's sinking, headed for Malaysia, where people-smugglers will take them for a fee. Others are looking closer to home – to Bangladesh and Thailand – but neither country wants them. Bangladesh is already home to around 300,000 Rohingya and is concerned about rising numbers. It has said that it will turn away boats, although people near Cox's Bazar, close to where last week's accident happened, said that some had made land and gone into hiding. Thailand does not want them and has been accused of forcing refugee boats back out to sea when they have tried to land. The latest assessment from the Burmese government – which regards the Rohingya as illegal immigrants – said 89 people had been killed in clashes between 21 and 30 October, with another 136 injured and 32,231 made homeless. At least 5,000 houses had been burned down. Activists say the true figures are likely to be higher.
"The villages have been burned down and some people have fled. A few have remained in the area, but others have tried to flee to the camps in Sittwe," said Lewa. "In some villages quite a lot of people have been killed, but we are still trying to find out how they died. Some died in the fires and some were attacked by Rakhine [Buddhists]. We also heard that the army shot at some of the Rakhine people. We heard about 170 people killed in one village alone."
Teff said the outlook for peace was grim. "There is a total lack of hope for the Rohingya. They have been rejected by many countries," she said. "The only way out is for the international community to act on the current situation."