Myanmar migrants were among the 39 people who drowned in the Mediterranean on January 30, according to Turkish state media.
A Turkish coast guard official stands on the shore overlooking a boat accident in the Aegean Sea that led to at least 39 migrants drowning on January 30. Photo: AFP
A boat ferrying migrants and asylum seekers to Lesbos, Greece, sank just a few miles from Turkey's Aegean coastline, according to the Turkish Coast Guard. A patrol leading the rescue effort saved 62 people, but at least 39 – including five children – drowned, Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily reported. Many of the rescued were hospitalised for hypothermia.
As the search continues, the number of casualties is expected to grow. Among the deceased were nationals from Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar, the coast guard said.
The Myanmar government could not immediately confirm the report, but said it is investigating whether Myanmar citizens were involved in the accident.
"We asked our Myanmar embassy representatives in that country to check whether the deceased really do include Myanmar citizens. It is possible that even though the news said they are from Myanmar, they may not be," said U Zaw Htay, director of the President's Office. "If they are Myanmar citizens, the embassy has the responsibility to provide support."
The Myanmar embassy in Ankara did not return request for comment yesterday.
The accident over the weekend is not the first time that Myanmar migrants have been onboard boats of asylum seekers being smuggled to Europe via the Mediterranean, although a spokesperson from the UNHCR said yesterday it was fair to say that Myanmar nationals are in the minority. Of the over 1 million migrants fleeing to Europe by sea last year, half were Syrians escaping war.
Media reports of the accidents punctuating the perilous sea journeys throughout last year did include references to Myanmar passengers, however. In May, a rescue of over 600 asylum seekers trying to cross the Aegean Sea included 200 people identified as fleing Myanmar, Iraq and Afghanistan. In August, Turkish security forces detained 435 migrants before they embarked on an attempted crossing of the Aegean Sea; 19 of them were from allegedly from Myanmar. And in November, the coast guard said they rescued 27 migrants of Afghan and Myanmar origin who were trying to cross in an inflatable boat.
It is unclear whether any of the Myanmar nationals identified by the Turkish authorities include Rohingya – officially called "Bengali" by the Myanmar government, and largely denied citizenship rights.
U Zaw Htay said the government has "no right to say whether [those in the accident] are Myanmar citizens or not" until an investigation is completed, and added that the government does not have a responsibility to those who are not citizens.
Myanmar was internationally criticised for failing to take responsibility for its part in the regional smuggling crisis that flared in May last year when boats full of migrants and asylum seekers from Rakhine State and Bangladesh were stranded on the Andaman Sea. Hundreds were estimated by the UN to have died as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand started a "push-back" policy that prevented the boats from disembarking.
In order to stem its own unprecedented influx of migrants and asylum seekers, the European Union has begun drafting legislation that would criminalise volunteers or holidaymakers who assist asylum seekers. In the first month of 2016, more than 52,000 people arrived by sea in Greece and 218 have died off the Turkish coast, according to the International Organisation for Migration. A nationality breakdown involving Myanmar was not available.