Police in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady region Thursday night apprehended 30 young Rohingya Muslims from northern Rakhine state for failing to have approved travel documents as they headed to the commercial city Yangon to find jobs or to leave the country and look for work abroad, local officials said.
The group intercepted by Ayeyarwady region’s Ngapudaw township police at Yaykyaw village tract in Ngayoke Kaung town included 20 women and mostly underage children, and all ranged in age from four years old to 27 years old, with most being around 15 years old, officials said.
Authorities said the Rohingya came from Thetkeibyin and Thaechaung villages in Rakhine’s Sittwe township.
“They include nine adult males, one young boy, and 20 females,” Yaykyaw village tract administrator Myint Soe told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Authorities at the Ngayokekaung town police station are questioning the members of the group, he said.
“They said they came from Sittwe by boat,” Myint Soe said. “They landed at the Ngayokekaung Bridge near Yaykyaw, and then they were all squeezed into a [Mitsubishi] Pajero [SUV] to proceed.”
The Rohingya told police that they paid between 500,000 and 700,000 kyats (U.S. $ 3,900-U.S. $5,460) to traffickers who arranged their transportation to Yangon where some of them intended to stay for work and others planned to sail to Malaysia.
Myo Min Tun from the General Administration Department of Ngayokekaung township said the Rohingya, who are prohibited from traveling outside certain areas without official permission, could be charged.
“Currently, the top management decision is to transport them to Ayeyarwady region’s capital Pathein after the investigation,” he said. “We don’t know the laws they have broken or how they will be charged.”
“Depending on the investigation, the Immigration Department will decide,” he said. “With the rest of the procedures, the Myanmar police force will handle them according to law.”
RFA was unable to reach Ayeyarwaddy region social welfare minister Hla Myat Thwe, Colonel Kyaw Swar Hlaing, minister for security and border affairs, or immigration and human resources minister Soe Win for comment.
Authorities in Rakhine state restrict the movement of the stateless Rohingya, who are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied citizenship and access to basic rights and services. Those who need to travel must submit requests, even for emergencies.
The detained Rohingya said 44 people were aboard the boat when they departed Sittwe, though only 30 of them disembarked after authorities intercepted them at a jetty..
Tin Hlaing, a Muslim from Thae Chaung village, said the detained Rohingya had left Sittwe three days ago, and that their family members are now worried about their safety.
“Their family members are now gravely concerned about them,” he told RFA, adding that the Rohingya who left the Rakhine villages were seeking a better life in Yangon or elsewhere.
“They are going through various hardships with a scarcity of job opportunities and restrictions on their movements,” he said. “As a result, they were seeking ways to find a better future. These people planned to travel to Yangon to make a better living. Most of them intended to go abroad later.”
Tin Hlaing said others tried to stop the group from leaving, but they refused to listen.
“They didn’t accept our suggestions because they felt the pressure of their hardship and joblessness,” he said.
A brutal military-led campaign of violence targeting Rohingya communities in Rakhine state in 2017 left thousands dead and drove more than 740,000 others across the border to Bangladesh where they now reside in sprawling displacement camps. An estimated 600,000 still live in the state where some are confined to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.
The crackdown was in response to deadly attacks on police outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Muslim militant group that conducted the armed assault on the same day that a commission headed by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan called for an end to restrictions on the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.
But Rohingya leaders say that the civilian-led National League for Democracy (NLD) government has made almost no progress with implementing the commission’s recommendations that the Rohingya be granted basic rights, such as access to health care and education, citizenship, and free movement.
First step to citizenship
Rakhine state government spokesman Win Myint said he had no information about the detained Muslims, but that officials were issuing National Verification Cards (NVCs) to Rohingya who qualify for them as the first step to attaining Myanmar citizenship.
Many Rohingya oppose the NVCs because they believe that the documents stigmatize the Muslim ethnic group.
“They can apply for citizenship only after they receive the NVC cards,” Win Myint said. “After an assessment, we will grant citizenship to people who qualify to become citizens, [and] we will issue different ID cards to those who don’t qualify.”
Rohingya eligible for citizenship will have the right to free movement, he added.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief, and resettlement, and vice chairman of the government’s Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Development in Rakhine (UEHRD), was not available for comment.
Myanmar and Bangladesh have tried twice to repatriate Rohingya refugees who fled during the 2017 crackdown, but their efforts failed after no one showed up at the border for re-entry processing.
Most of the refugees have said that they will not return to Rakhine state unless the government can guarantee their safety, grant them citizenship, and allow them freedom of movement.
Reported by Kyaw Tun Naing for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.