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Refugee boats set sail as monsoon season ends

But many displaced Rohingya wait for Myanmar election before deciding on risky voyage

ucanews.com reporters, Sittwe

ucanews.com reporters, Sittwe

Published: October 19, 2015 11:06 AM GMT

Updated: October 19, 2015 04:44 AM GMT

Refugee boats set sail as monsoon season ends

A boat at a sailing point near Sittwe's displacement camps in Myanmar's Rakhine state. Many Rohingya are waiting for the results of the Nov. 8 election before deciding on the risky sea voyage to Malaysia. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)

Thousands of minority Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar's divided Rakhine state are preparing once again to take the risky ocean journey to Malaysia, potentially reigniting Southeast Asia's biggest refugee crisis since the Vietnam War.

Plans are being hatched inside 10 desperately poor displacement camps outside Rahkine's capital, Sittwe, as reports have emerged that two boats left South Maungdaw in northern Rakhine and Chittagong in Bangladesh in recent days.

"People are preparing to leave by boats but they are waiting for local smugglers, who are yet to ramp up operations for recruiting. But people will leave soon, for sure," translator Khin Mg Myint told ucanews.com at Thetkapyin displacement camp, part of a 200,000-strong Rohingya enclave outside Sittwe from which residents are forbidden to leave.

The news marks the start of the so-called "sailing season" that begins once the South Asian monsoon has ended. Aid groups already fear the worst, despite moves earlier this year by the government of Thailand — the key transit country — to break up people smuggling operations.

People inside the camps told ucanews.com that they feared the exodus could be even larger than the previous season, because 800,000 Rohingya were forced to hand back identity cards that had previously given them voting rights, leaving them voiceless in the Myanmar's upcoming Nov. 8 election.

There are also fears that the Arakan National Party, a newly formed amalgamation of two parties with links to hard-line Buddhist movements, could win a large majority in the state legislature in a vote also being taken on Nov. 8. This could see pressure mount on the central government to start deporting camp residents who lack papers to prove their families have been long-term residents in Myanmar. Arakan is the former name for Rakhine.


A tentative start

On the other hand, many internees who spoke to ucanews.com are holding out hope that a victory by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy would lead to a dismantling of the camps.

"I will take a risky boat journey again as I consider that dying in a boat journey is better than staying in miserable conditions in the camps with no access to health care and employment opportunities," Yasmin, a mother of four in Ohn-Taw-Gyi displacement camp, told ucanews.com.

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Yasmin, 27, tried to leave for Thailand in May 2015 to find her husband, who had left three years earlier, but her boat was forced to return to Myanmar.

However, many internees were reluctant to reveal their plans. Observers believe the situation has become "more clandestine" since the crackdown on people smugglers earlier in 2015.

The scale of the crisis was revealed in May after authorities in Thailand, long criticized for their inaction in a country that is a central part of the human smuggling route, finally made a move on traffickers.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 100,000 people have made the journey from Rakhine state and Bangladesh, where grinding poverty is the main driver for migration.

In the months since, the underlying drivers "have been compounded by an increasing sense of desperation among Rohingya, driven principally by political exclusion," said a report issued on Oct. 17 by the Association of South East Asian Nations Parliamentarians for Human Rights, which warned of a fresh refugee crisis in the coming months.

The disenfranchisement of Rohingya voters as well as the rejection of dozens of Rohingya parliamentary candidates for the November elections has "led many Rohingya to believe that there is little hope for their future in Myanmar," the report said.

Furuk, a residents' committee member at Dar Paing camp near Sittwe, said that some people are secretly planning to leave and some are waiting for the results of the election.

His three sons and a daughter left for Malaysia in 2012 to escape the miserable conditions in Sittwe's camps.

"Another of my sons, who is 19 years old, wants to leave for Malaysia this year but we are begging him not to go abroad," Furuk said.

Furuk, who lives in Dar Paing camp near Sittwe, said many residents in the displacement camp plan to leave, while others are waiting for the results of the Nov. 8 election. (Photo by ucanews.com reporter)


Small groups

Chris Lewa, who runs the nonprofit organization The Arakan Project told ucanews.com that the group's contacts monitoring northern Rakhine had heard about small groups embarking from Chittagong and South Maungdaw and that "two boats have apparently sailed with a low number of people over the last couple of weeks." 

"The fact that Thailand has closed its door as a transit country has definitely had an impact on the scale of departures and disrupted smuggling networks," she added.

"Last year, October showed the largest number of departures — more than 13,000 in one month," Lewa added. "It is impossible to predict the future but we believe that numbers will remain low up to the elections."

Some camp residents believe that the government will keep people from leaving the camps until after the poll to avoid any further international criticism.

In Bangladesh, the government has promised it will by the end of October finalize a deal that would allow 1.5 million migrant workers to legally find jobs in Malaysia — reducing the lure of human trafficking networks.

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