A group of 93 Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled displacement camps in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state with the help of human traffickers in mid-November faced their third hearing Friday on charges of traveling without official permission, a lawyer for the refugees said.
Authorities have detained the refugees’ driver, though the traffickers paid to transport the 70 adults and 23 children out of Rakhine state by boat remain at large. The Rohingya group was arrested on Nov. 28 in Pathein in southern Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady region.
“They have been charged under subsections 1, 2 and 3 of Section 6 of Myanmar’s Citizenship Law by the Immigration Department,” Thazin Myint Myat Win, one of the attorneys representing the Rohingya refugees, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“The court heard testimony by the plaintiff, Sein Win, deputy head of the Immigration Department,” she said about Friday’s hearing.
During the trial, Pathein township judge Khin Myat Myat said, “According to the law, if they are found guilty, they will face a sentence of up to one to two years with hard labor or a fine.”
The adults are being detained in Pathein Prison, while most of the children are being held at a police station. Children four years of age and younger have been allowed to stay with their mothers in detention.
Among the children held by police, the youngest is 13 years old.
Local Muslim humanitarian groups and a legal aid group called the International Legal Foundation are providing food and legal aid to the Rohingya in detention.
Thazin Myint Myat Win told RFA that the Rohingya left their refugee camps to go anywhere they could out of desperation because they were hopeless about their futures if they continued to live in the displacement camps.
“Some of them paid 500,000 to 700,000 kyats [U.S. $328-$459] per person to go to Yangon,” she said. “Some of them decided to sell themselves [an indentured laborers] since they could not afford to pay the fees.”
The Rohingya risked their lives to flee their displacement camp, Thazin Myint Myat Win said.
“They said they came from Buthidaung town in Rakhine state,” she said. “All of them have told us about the areas from where they came from and said that they have household [identification] documents in their villages.”
“Some said they ran away from a refugee camp in Sittwe to escape problems,” she added.
A human rights violation
Though authorities have not arrested the traffickers, they have arrested the driver who transported the Rohingya by land to the boat.
“In this case, they cannot charge the human traffickers but rather charge the refugees,” said activist Nickey Diamond from the Southeast Asia-based NGO Fortify Rights.
“This is a human rights violation, and it is not the solution,” he said.
RFA could reach neither plaintiff Sein Win from the Immigration Department nor two local lawmakers for comment.
In November, a court in Pathein sentenced 14 Rohingya to two-year jail terms for traveling without permission.
The next court hearing for the 93 Rohingya is scheduled for Jan. 3.
In a similar incident, another group of 93 Muslims who tried to flee Myanmar by boat in November 2018 were sent back to their home villages and displacement camps in Rakhine state and issued identification documents after being picked up by a naval vessel off the coast of Tanintharyi’s Dawei district in southern Myanmar.
Those Rohingyas had left their villages near Sittwe township and the Darpaing displacement camp after paying traffickers 500,000 kyats each to take them to Malaysia in hopes of a better life.
Myanmar considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, systematically discriminates against them, and denies them full citizenship, though many have lived in the country for generations.
Communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state in 2012 left more than 200 people dead and displaced about 140,000 others, mostly Rohingya who ended up in displacement camps. Those who live in the camps must obtain official permission to temporarily travel outside their communities or risk arrest.
In recent years, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled or attempted to flee persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar on boats organized by human traffickers and bound for other Southeast Asian nations.
A military-led crackdown on the Rohingya in northern Rakhine state in 2017 drove more than 740,000 members of the minority group across the border into Bangladesh where they live in sprawling displacement camps.
Reported by Nayrein Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written by Roseanne Gerin.