On Sunday 25th November, 93 Rohingya refugees were seized by Myanmar authorities as they attempted to flee to Malaysia by boat. The refugees fled from one of the many displacement camps, Thae Chaung, in the Rhakine capital, Sittwe, as an official has revealed to Reuters. Each individual paid 500,000 kyats (U.S. $312) to human traffickers for the journey. This was the third Malaysian-bound refugee ship seized by Myanmar authorities since the monsoon season ended last month.
Police Colonel Sein Win revealed to Radio Free Asia (RFA), that the refugees “were sent back at around 9.35 pm last night [27 November] by military vessel,” and warned that any Rohingya attempting escape would be forcibly returned to a displacement camp. The refugees were issued temporary identity cards on their return (Myanmar refuses to recognize the Rohingya minority as citizens and treats them as illegal immigrants.) As a result, the 28 men, 33 women and 32 children attempting to flee to Malaysia returned to the stateless existence they were so desperate to leave behind.
Meanwhile, the Rhakine State Police are focusing on capturing those responsible for human trafficking, by investigating those who organised and profited from this journey. Chief Kyi Lin told the RFA that Myanmar “will take action against the traffickers.” It is clearly a priority for Myanmar to prevent dangerous journeys undertaken by refugees through illegal channels. Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project states that since mid-October around 10 ships carrying several hundreds of fleeing refugees have left displacement camps. On 16 November the Myanmar navy rescued 106 stranded Rohingya refugees in the Adaman sea on their way to Malaysia after the boat’s engine failed.
While it is clear that the Myanmar authorities are striving to prevent human trafficking, it is also clear that the refugees see this as their only means of escaping the dire living conditions in the displacement camps. Speaking to the RFA, an anonymous Rohingya refugee shared his experience: “We don’t have anything to eat or wear,” he said, “Supplies from the World Food Programme last about 15 days, [and] for the rest of the month, we have to borrow money with an interest fee. Some people fled after the interest rate got higher and higher.” Refugees board rickety, unsafe vessels and pay for the journeys with all their worldly possessions, knowing the risks they face in order to escape persecution. The same refugee adds: “They know they might die at sea. The whole ship may be sunk, and they can be arrested by authorities. In some cases, pirates have assaulted women. They all know that, but they believe their lives will be better once they can manage to escape.”
The UN has urged Myanmar to “address the root causes of displacement”, rather than simply focusing on the prevention of human trafficking. As one unnamed Rohingya refugee told AFP, “nothing has changed in [the] six years” since the outbreak of violence between Muslims and Buddhists in the Rhakine state in 2012 which left 140,000 Muslims displaced. He said, “we are losing hope”. Amnesty International has stated that the restrictions placed on Rohingyas in relation to healthcare, education and employment amounts to apartheid. The seizure and detention of fleeing refugees is a short-term solution and does not address the “root cause” of the problem, which is the continual persecution and mistreatment of a vulnerable minority which is denied a voice.
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