YANGON – More than 100 Rohingya refugees had a narrow escape in the Bay of Bengal on Monday as their damaged vessel drifted ashore in northern Rakhine State’s Rathedaung Township. Some of those on board said the vessel had been bound for Malaysia, but it remained unclear Tuesday whether their journey had begun in Rakhine or a refugee camp in Bangladesh.
According to a statement from the government’s Information Committee, local authorities were informed in the early hours of Monday that 104 people were sheltering on a stretch of beach between Aung Bala Chaung Wa village and Don Piek village near southern Maungdaw Township. The local officials discovered a 40-ft-long, 20-ft-high boat along with 60 female and 44 male passengers. According to passengers, the hull of the boat cracked as the vessel was buffeted by strong winds. The boat eventually drifted ashore in Rathedaung.
The statement referred to the stranded passengers simply as “Islam believers”, avoiding the terms “Bengali” — the name used by many in Myanmar to refer to Muslims from northern Rakhine State, seeing them as immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh who arrived during British rule — and “Rohingya” (the term used by the community itself).
Authorities transported the refugees in four vehicles to Nga Khu Ya refugee reception camp in northern Maungdaw about 85 km from Don Piek village in Rathedaung Township in order to verify the group’s origins.
U San Thein, a resident of Ahngu Maw village in Rathedaung Township who had been to the site where the boat made land, told The Irrawaddy that authorities initially discovered 65 people, and found the rest later in several groups at different locations. According to him, the group comprised 10 children, 35 men and 56 women — three fewer than the count later provided by officials. Some reportedly said they had been en route to Malaysia for five days, but passengers gave conflicting statements as to the vessel’s point of departure.
Some of them said they had departed from a refugee camp in Bangladesh. About 700,000 Rohingya refugees are currently sheltering in camps there after being driven out by Myanmar military clearance operations against the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which staged serial attacks on government security outposts in August 2017.
As their account could not be verified, it remains unclear whether all of the passengers left from the same location in Bangladesh, or if in fact they are all from Rathedaung and were attempting to leave the strife-torn zone for a fresh start in another country. Travel by Rohingya Muslims is heavily restricted both in and outside Rakhine. Rohingya are occasionally arrested by police for attempting to travel to Yangon without the necessary documents from the Immigration Department.
According to the Information Committee’s statement, in May 2015 authorities located and assisted 228 Bangladeshi boat people in southern Maungdaw before transferring them to the custody of Bangladeshi authorities. That same month, authorities discovered 743 boat people in Irrawaddy Division’s Pyar Pon Township. After identifying them as Bangladeshi nationals with the help of the Bangladesh Embassy, it repatriated them through official channels.
U Ko Ko Thaw, an immigration official in northern Maungdaw’s Taungpyo sub-township who is leading the process of registering displaced people, declined to answer specific questions when contacted via telephone by The Irrawaddy, saying the case is being handled by officials at the Nga Khu Ya reception camp.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed a refugee reparation agreement in November 2017 but as of Tuesday not a single refugee had been transferred to Maungdaw reception camp through official channels. A small number of people have attempted to return from the Bangladesh camps to the Maungdaw border without authorization, leading to the arrest of 62 returnees by local authorities. Of these, President U Myint Myint has pardoned 58 and four have had the charges against them dropped. This group was sent to the refugee reception camp for registration. A few days after their return, about 10 of them fled the camp. Authorities believe they returned to their place of origin.
To accelerate the return of refugees from Bangladesh, the Myanmar government recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with two UN agencies, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The MoU concluded a negotiation process that began in February. Moreover, the government last week announced plans to establish a credible investigation team including one high-profile international member and two Myanmar nationals to look into alleged human rights violations in northern Rakhine State linked to both ARSA and members of the security forces.
Min Aung Khine contributed to this report from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.