Myanmar will soon begin to repatriate 200 Bangladeshis after they were rescued from a boat stranded off its coast last week, an official from the Rakhine state government said Tuesday, amid an ongoing migrant crisis in the region.
Human traffickers preying on Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis escaping poverty at home have increasingly abandoned the migrants at sea following a recent crackdown on the practice in Thailand, which had previously been used as a transit nation.
On May 22, Myanmar’s navy rescued 208 men from a boat off the coast of Rakhine state—200 of whom are Bangladeshis and the rest “Bengalis” from Rakhine, according to a report by the official Global New Light of Myanmar.
Myanmar’s government refers to the 1.1 million Rohingyas who live in the country as “Bengalis” because it views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
On Monday, Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed to repatriate the 200 Bangladeshis following talks involving Bangladesh's foreign ministry, Myanmar's ambassador to Bangladesh, and Bangladesh officials in Myanmar, the Global New Light said.
Rakhine state government secretary Tin Maung Swe told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the 200 would be sent home shortly, as they had already held individual meetings with an official from the Bangladeshi consulate in the Rakhine capital Sittwe.
“The official took note of these people’s documents, with information including their addresses, and will submit them to his government through the Bangladesh Embassy in Myanmar,” he said.
“Once they are received, Bangladesh will begin work on accepting them back. It won’t happen immediately, but it shouldn’t take long.”
According to the Global New Light, the men aboard the ship had traveled from Bangladesh's coastal resort of Cox's Bazaar, the port city of Chittagong and the capital, Dhaka.
Tin Maung Swe said he did not expect any complications in repatriating the group to Bangladesh, adding that authorities in Myanmar “are taking good care of them” in the meantime.
“The [trafficking] victims told [United Nations Secretary General's special adviser on Myanmar] Vijay Nambiar where they are from, that their children are in Bangladesh, and that they want to go back to Bangladesh, in addition to thanking us for assisting them,” he said.
“As everybody knows they are from Bangladesh, they will be repatriated according to international law.”
Last week, a U.N. delegation led by Nambiar and Renata Dessallien, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, visited camps housing the rescued Bangladeshis, accompanied by Rakhine state chief minister Maung Maung Ohn, according to a U.N. press release.
Nambiar “recognized the rescue had been undertaken with great seriousness and irrespective of the nationality of the stranded migrants,” according to the statement, which urged Myanmar to continue its search and rescue operations for another 3,500 migrants the U.N. estimates remain stranded at sea.
Tin Maung Swe said authorities in Rakhine state were “doing their best” to prevent people from illegally entering and exiting Myanmar, but acknowledged that problems exist with the current system.
On Tuesday, a police officer told RFA that two Muslim men had been arrested in Sittwe a day earlier in connection with trafficking the eight people from Rakhine state rescued last week, adding that they were under investigation by immigration officials and border authorities.
‘Boat people’ crisis
The U.N. estimates that 130,000 ethnic Rohingyas have fled Myanmar by sea since a violent and deadly clash with majority Buddhists in mid-2012. Others, who were displaced by the violence, remain housed in camps in Myanmar.
Myanmar blames the current ‘boat people’ crisis on human trafficking and smuggling networks and has rejected claims that its policies towards the Rohingyas have caused them to flee.
Washington and the U.N. have urged Myanmar to fight discrimination and violence against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, saying its policy toward them is a root cause of mass migration behind the crisis.
But Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar vowed to protest on Wednesday against international pressure on the country to help boat people, according to a report by Agence France-Presse, as humanitarian efforts to rescue the desperate migrants stir up anti-Muslim animosity.
Rights groups say Wirathu, the monk leader of Myanmar’s ultra-nationalist Buddhist 969 movement, has played a direct role in inciting violence against Rohingyas by personally engaging in anti-Muslim preaching events or social media campaigns just prior to major outbreaks of rioting against Muslim communities around the country.
Reported by Min Thein Aung and Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.