Myanmar navy personnel escort Rohingya Muslims back to their camp in Sittwe in Rakhine State on Nov. 30 after they were caught fleeing on a boat. They paid hundreds of dollars to try to escape squalid Myanmar camps by boat. (Photo by AFP)
As the world pays great attention to the repatriation of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, a forgotten group of Rohingya are risking their lives to escape hardship in Myanmar.
Myanmar authorities found at least four boats, each carrying scores of men, women and children, that departed from Rakhine State for Malaysia in November.
The Rohingya spent several days in the wooden boats after they ran out of fuel and food and lost their way. They were intercepted by Myanmar's navy and returned to their villages and internally displaced person (IDP) camps near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine.
The attempted flight has shone a spotlight on the more than 120,000 Rohingya who remain in camps in central Rakhine in "apartheid-like conditions." Their freedom of movement and access to healthcare and education have been severely restricted since 2012 violence that left more than 200 people dead.
The end of the South Asian monsoon in mid-October marks the start of the so-called sailing season.
Mohammad, a camp committee member from Thetkaepyin IDP camp in Sittwe township, said dozens of people from his camp joined voyages on the boats that departed in November.
"Fleeing people told me that they have remained in the camps for more than six years and things are not improving as they have limited food rations, no jobs and restricted freedom of movement. They are prepared to take risky voyages rather than stay in miserable conditions," he told ucanews.com.
Furuk, a residents' committee member at Dar Paing camp near Sittwe, said he learned about boats leaving Rakhine only after they people were arrested by Myanmar authorities.
"People have longed to return to their homes but the prospects are dim, so they try to flee via boats despite knowing it's a risky ocean journey," he told ucanews.com.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan project that works for Rohingya rights, said displaced people and villagers in central Rakhine have been trapped and confined in segregated camps or villages for more than six years with restricted access to means of livelihood and with no solution in sight.
"They became more desperate to escape, especially those with relatives in Malaysia," Lewa told ucanews.com.
In overcrowded and unsafe vessels, tens of thousands of Rohingya have in the past fled Rakhine and headed for Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
A crackdown on human trafficking in Thailand in 2015 triggered a humanitarian crisis when smugglers abandoned their human cargo on land and at sea.
Rohingya sources say local people smugglers persuade families to take boat trips for the prospect of employment opportunities in Malaysia.
On Nov. 18, police shot and injured four Rohingya men in Ah Nauk Ye IDP camp in Pauktaw township in Rakhine as they hunted suspected smugglers related to the first failed boat voyage with 106 people. Two men have been arrested on suspicion of owning the boat.
At least five smugglers suspected of organizing boat trips have been arrested, according to Rohingya sources.
Mohammad from Thetkaypyin camp said people need to pay around 500,000 kyats (US$320) each to traffickers for boat trips.
"Amid the dire conditions in the camps, smugglers took the opportunity to persuade them to go to Malaysia," he told ucanews.com.
The Rakhine Advisory Commission, established in 2016 and led by the late Kofi Annan, recommended that the Myanmar government take concrete steps to end enforced segregation of Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. It also recommended allowing freedom of movement and access to healthcare, education and employment.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi said the government has implemented 81 out of the 88 recommendations by the commission but Rohingya and political analysts says conditions remain dire.
Myanmar's government regards the Rohingya as "Bengalis." By not recognizing the term "Rohingya," the government has implied that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh despite vast numbers of them having lived in Myanmar for decades.
The latest attempted exodus of Rohingya in Rakhine via the sea came after the failed repatriation of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who say they will not return without guarantees of freedom of movement and citizenship rights.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to escape a Myanmar military crackdown in Rakhine that began in August 2017. A United Nations fact-finding mission in mid-September found that the military's persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine amounted to genocide.