The plight of more than 100 Rohingya from Myanmar rescued at sea last week after their boat was stranded en route to Malaysia highlights the lengths to which members of the Muslim minority group are willing to go to in order to escape the hardships they face in internally displaced persons camps at home.
Some of the tens of thousands of Rohingya, who were ushered into the camps in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state following communal violence with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012, have left Myanmar for other Southeast Asian countries with the help of traffickers. Others have died trying or have gotten caught and been sent back.
Though the Myanmar government is working on shutting down the IDP camps, about 90,000 Rohingya still live in a dozen of them in or around Rakhine’s state capital Sittwe.
The factors that push these internal refugees to try to leave Myanmar are the same ones that have caused the 720,000 or more Rohingya sheltering in Bangladesh after being driven out by army campaigns in 2016 and 2017 to resist efforts to repatriate them. Recent plans to return several thousand refugees to Myanmar foundered when no Rohingya were willing to go home.
Viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, the Rohingya are denied citizenship and basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services, education, and jobs.
Some of the 106 Rohingya who paid traffickers to take them by boat to Malaysia said they had left their camps because of a lack of basic rights, food rations, jobs, education, and health care, and because they had bleak future prospects.
“If the government can’t provide support for us for anything, it should allow us to work,” said Htin Gyi (not his real name), a Rohingya who has lived in Thetkepyin IDP camp in Sittwe township since 2012.
“The World Food Programme provides us with rice, cooking oil, and salt, but it’s not enough for us,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service “It is very difficult to survive, as 90 percent of us don’t have jobs. “We can’t send our children to school, and we can’t get treatment for any health problems. It has been six years.”
More are fleeing
Travel restrictions imposed on the Rohingya means they cannot move freely around the region except to be escorted by security guards to the Muslim enclave of Aung Mingalar ward in Sittwe and to the town’s immigration office and hospital.
Camp residents say the discrimination is yet another reason why the Rohingya are attempting to flee by boat to other countries in Southeast Asia.
“More people from the camps and villages, even women and children, are fleeing now that the rainy season is over,” said Maung Maung, a Rohingya who lives in Thetkepyin IDP camp.
Htin Gyi said that young Rohingya women from Sittwe will go to neighboring countries to marry other Rohingya who live there to escape the oppression they face at home.
“They don’t think about whether they could be trafficked along the way or die if their boat sinks,” he said. “I am sad to see them go, so I try to stop them as much as I can. When 10 boats recently planned to set sail, I could stop only four of them, and the other six departed in secret.”
Kyi Myint (not his real name), a Rohingya who lives in the Darpaing IDP camp, said he has informed government authorities many times about human traffickers who enter the camps.
“Human traffickers come into the camps, and they tell the refugees that they can get jobs in Thailand and Malaysia,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They ask them to pay about 300,000 kyats (U.S. $187) to take them to these countries. About 60 to 70 percent of the refugees take risks to leave.”
Though Rohingya in the camps have to save money for a long time to pay traffickers to go to other countries, conditions are never safe for them, said Kyaw Hla, a Rohingya leader at the Thae Chaung IDP camp.
“We know that many people who left for foreign countries in recent years died after the boats they were traveling in sank, or else they starved,” he said. “A few of them made it to other countries, but many died or went missing.”
‘Refugees OK in camps’
Some Rohingya have accused IDP camp leaders, security guards, and police of letting those who are confined to the camps leave with traffickers in return for payments.
But Rakhine State Police Colonel Kyi Lin said he doesn’t believe the accusations.
“People are saying what they think,” he said. “I don’t think we have this kind of issue in Sittwe. We will stop them if we know about it.”
“The refugees are OK in the camps with support [from the government and international NGOs],” he said. “They can live freely in the camps as well.”
Tun Aung Kyaw, chairman of the Arakan National Party, which represents the interests of ethnic Rakhine people in the state, said that most residents of the impoverished multiethnic region suffer from a lack of jobs.
“That’s why most ethnic Rakhine and sub-Rakhine ethnic groups are leaving for other places more and more,” he said.
“At least they are going to Hpakant [in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state] to work in the jade mines,” he added. “They also go to Thailand and Malaysia. Everybody will leave their places of residence if they can’t survive there.”
Ko Ko Naing, director general of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, said the government is providing education and health care to Rohingya in the IDP camps.
“Children from the camps can go to schools, and we even have mobile health care teams for them,” he said. “They get everything that every citizen should get.”
“We have been supporting them, but I don’t know which criteria people are using to blame the government,” he said. “We have other poor places in the country.”
Kyi Myint from the Darpaing IDP camp said there is a temporary health clinic at the camp, but that those who live there have access to doctors and nurses only when President Win Myint, Rakhine State Chief Minister Nyi Pu, and United Nations officials visit.
“When they are gone, these doctors and nurses are gone,” he said. “When we have a health problem, we are asked to go to Sittwe Hospital. We have to hire a car and pay 3,000 kyats (U.S. $1.90) a day, while the cost of the driver is 5,000 kyats (U.S. $3.11).”
RFA attempted to contact Nyi Pu several times for comment but was unable to reach him.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement and vice chairman of Myanmar’s Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development in Rakhine State (UEHRD), told RFA on Monday that the Rakhine state government is responsible for the management of IDP camps in Sittwe, and that his ministry provides support to the state government.
‘It’s better to leave’
On Wednesday, meanwhile, authorities transferred the 106 boat people by navy vessel to Rakhine’s Thae Chuang village so they could return to the camps and villages where they live, after holding them in Yangon region following their rescue on Nov. 16.
Officials who arranged for the boat people to go to the village could not be reached for comment.
Two days after the Rohingya were rescued, Myanmar police detained two men accused of smuggling them out of the country in their boat, at the Ah Nauk Ye IDP camp, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) east of Sittwe.
Four Rohingya were then injured when police fired during a melee that ensued there.
Win Myat Aye later told RFA that relevant organizations were investigating whether the Rohingya had been illegally trafficked.
In the last several years, tens of thousands of Rohingya from the camps have fled or attempted to flee persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar on boats organized by human traffickers.
Authorities had to rescue many Rohingya stranded on rickety boats in 2015 after smugglers left the boats adrift in the Andaman Sea, amid a crackdown on their illegal activities by Thai authorities.
Maung Maung Soe, a Rohingya from Thae Chaung IDP camp, told RFA that he wants to go to Malaysia to escape the hardship he faces at the camp.
“Everything was convenient before, and we could move around freely,” he said. “But it’s not convenient now. We don’t have regular meals, and children can’t go to school. So, we think to ourselves that it’s better to leave and go abroad instead of staying here. If possible, I’d like to leave too.”
In recent years, some Rohingya have attempted to leave Myanmar on foot, traveling over the Rakhine Mountains, though most have left by water via the Bay of Bengal. Some landed ashore after their vessels experienced mechanical problems, while others who traveled by land faced arrests at checkpoints.
Myanmar authorities routinely send back those who are intercepted.
“As long as root causes are not addressed, they [the Rohingya] will keep trying to leave because they can’t make a living here and settle down,” said a member of Thae Chaung IDP camp committee, who declined to be identified.
“So, they will keep on trying to sneak out, no matter how difficult it is,” he said.
Freedom of movement is key
A Muslim activist in Thak Kae Pyin village, who declined to give his name, said that many believe their situation will improve if the government guarantees freedom of movement for the Rohingya.
“If the government fails to address freedom of movement, it will be very troubling for our livelihoods and for our children,” he said.
Gail Marzetti, chief of the Myanmar office of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, has said that Myanmar officials should implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State led by late former U.N. chief Kofi Annan.
Human rights, humanitarian, security, and development issues in the state should be addressed at the same time, she said.
The Annan commission’s final report issued in August 2017 called for reviews of Myanmar's Citizenship Law, which prohibits Rohingya from becoming citizens, and an end to restrictions on the minority group to prevent further violence in the divided state. It also called for the closure of the IDP camps in Rakhine state.
The government of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, who set up the commission, has said it has implemented 81 of the report’s 88 recommendations, but political analysts and rights experts have questioned the claim.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.