ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
Updated: February 21, 2013 10:35 PM GMT
A Buddhist monk serving as an intermediary for a group of Myanmar nationals rescued off the coast by the Sri Lankan navy this week said the group has refused to be repatriated and is appealing for political asylum.
Venerable Maligawila Assaji Thero, a monk fluent in the Myanmar language, said the 32 ailing refugees who fled the Bangladesh-Myanmar border area two months ago were en route to Malaysia to avoid religious and political persecution.
The group has identified themselves as Muslims from Rakhine state in western Myanmar, Assaji said on Friday.
“They have said they do not want to return there because they are being harassed.”
Thousands of asylum seekers from western Myanmar, many of them from Rakhine state's Rohingya Muslim minority, flee the country by boat each year, according to UN reports. Most are bound for Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.
Sri Lankan authorities have said the navy rescued 32 asylum seekers on the brink of starvation, and that an additional 98 had died during the group’s two months at sea.
The survivors are being held in an immigration detention center, where they are receiving medical attention pending repatriation.
The Myanmar embassy in Colombo has so far refused to claim them as citizens and has refused to repatriate them, according to immigration chief Chulananda Perera, who added that discussions about what to do with the survivors is ongoing.
Earlier this month, another group of 138 Myanmar asylum seekers were rescued by the Sri Lankan navy from a sinking fishing vessel off the eastern coast of the country.
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