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Burmese Refugee Boat Capsizes Ahead of Storm, 8 Dead

People dismantle tents before moving to safer grounds in light of an approaching cyclone, in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp for Muslims, outside Sittwe, Burma, May 13, 2013.
The United Nations says at least eight people died after several boats evacuating Rohingya Muslim refugees capsized off western Burma, as tens of thousands scramble to leave low-lying refugee camps ahead of an incoming storm.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says the accident occurred when a group of five boats carrying about 100 people struck rocks near Pauktaw township in Burma's Rakhine state. It said 42 people survived the crash. The fate of the others is unknown.

The accident happened Monday, as the already displaced persons were being moved to what the U.N. office called "other Muslim host communities" in that part of Burma.

NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this visible image of a well-rounded Tropical Cyclone Mahasen in the Northern Indian Ocean on May 15 at 07:55 UTC. (Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team)
NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this visible image of a well-rounded Tropical Cyclone Mahasen in the Northern Indian Ocean on May 15 at 07:55 UTC. (Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team)
Aid agencies continue to warn of a possible humanitarian disaster that could result from heavy flooding and mudslides late Wednesday or Thursday when Cyclone Mahasen hits the coast of western Burma and Bangladesh.

Most at risk are the tens of thousands of people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, living in squalid refugee camps in flood-prone areas of Rakhine. They were displaced following Buddhist-Muslim violence last year that killed nearly 200 people.

Human Rights Watch is one of several aid groups that has for months warned of the incoming rainy season. In a statement Tuesday, the New York-based group said Burma did not heed the repeated warnings to relocate the displaced persons. If the government fails to evacuate all those at risk, it said any disaster "will not be natural, but man-made."

Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said he is not surprised that a boat full of Rohingya refugees has crashed, since the vessels being used to move them are too small for the job.

"The question is, where is the Burma Navy? The Burma Navy has a significant capacity to move people in a hurry. Why aren't they pitching in?" he asks. "Where is the mobilization of the Burma government to deal with this crisis at a level that is necessary?"

The U.N. said early Tuesday that 13,000 people were relocated in the previous 24 hours. But Robertson said it is not enough. He has received reports from some vulnerable camps in Rakhine that have not even been contacted by the government.

To make matters worse, there is the possibility that the Rohingya may face more violence if they leave the walls of the heavily guarded refugee camps. Robertson says authorities must ensure the refugees are not subject to violence at the hands of ethnic Arakanese.

"Vulnerable Muslim populations are certainly at risk, not only from the cyclones, but also from the violence at the hands of the ethnic Arakanese communities, and in some cases from the local security forces, who we found were responsible for ethnic cleansing," said Robertson.

A small minority in Burma, Muslims face a growing, violent campaign against them led by radical Buddhist monks. Some rights groups say Burmese security forces have ignored or even taken part in the violence - a charge denied by the government.

But the incoming storm is now the more urgent concern. Forecasters say Mahasen will continue to strengthen as it makes landfall near Chittagong in Bangladesh and moves into neighboring Burma.

Aid agencies are already preparing to help those who will be affected by the storm. In a statement, the Bangladesh Red Crescent and Myanmar Red Cross Societies said disaster response teams are on stand-by and are training locals in first aid and evacuation routes.

Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief, said on her Twitter account she is very concerned about the cyclone, which she said could be life threatening for millions in Bangladesh, Burma and India.

In 2008, Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma's Irrawaddy delta region, killing more than 130,000 people.