165 Bangladeshi Boatpeople Due for July 22 Repatriation: Arakan Official

By Khin Oo Tha 16 July 2015

The Burmese government says next week it will repatriate 165 out of what it claims are more than 500 Bangladeshi nationals who were found abandoned at sea off Burma’s coast in May and have been living at temporary camps in Arakan State.

Soe Naing, deputy director of the Maungdaw District Immigration and Population Department, told The Irrawaddy that the Bangladeshi consul had informed the department that his government would take back 165 out of 544 so-called “boatpeople” being sheltered at camps in Taung Pyo Let Wai village in Maungdaw Township.

“Only 165 out of 544 Bengalis have been verified and [the Bangladeshi consul] said that they would take them back first. At present, we plan to send them on 22 [July], but it may be postponed one or two days,” said Soe Naing.

State-run daily The Global New Light of Myanmar carried an announcement in a report on Thursday saying “discussions are underway” to send the 165 verified Bangladeshis back to the neighboring country on July 22.

A ceremony is planned for the handover, to be held at the friendship bridge linking the two countries, according to Soe Naing.

On May 21, the Burma Navy discovered a boat in the Bay of Bengal carrying 208 migrants, 200 of whom were determined to be Bangladeshi and sent to Taung Pyo Let Wai village, on the border with Bangladesh. Another boat, crammed with 733 people, was found on May 29 off the coast of Irrawaddy Division. The boat was held offshore for days before being towed to Maungdaw, where passengers were transferred to border holding facilities and scrutinized to determine their origins.

Of the more than 900 boatpeople, 150 of them were officially handed over to Bangladesh on June 8 and another 37 on June 19.

Local authorities and some international agencies have taken responsibility for providing the boatpeople with food and other necessities at the camps while the verification process plays out.

“Along with the verification process, continuous efforts are being made for the remaining boat people to be repatriated expeditiously back to the place of origin based on neighbourliness relations between Myanmar and Bangladesh,” The Global New Light of Myanmar reported.

Those “neighbourliness relations,” however, have appeared at times strained by the tide of boatpeople that have come ashore in Burma and other Southeast Asian nations since a May crackdown on human trafficking sent traffickers into hiding, leaving much of their human cargo load stranded at sea.

Neither Burma nor Bangladesh has welcomed the return of the boatpeople, a mixture of Bangladeshi economic migrants and minority Rohingya Muslims fleeing state-sanctioned discrimination in Arakan State. At a press conference on June 4, Bangladesh’s ambassador to Burma pushed back against Burmese officials’ tendency to lump all the boatpeople into one group—that being Bangladeshis due for repatriation as soon as possible.

At issue, in part, is the Burmese government’s official line on the Rohingya: That they are illegal “Bengali” interlopers from Bangladesh, despite the fact that many trace their presence in Arakan State to generations of ancestors born in Burma.

Soe Naing said “Bengalis” living in Arakan State were among the boatpeople rescued by the navy in May and those individuals had been sent back to their places of residence.

Even as the government prepares to send 165 Bangladeshis back next week, state media reported on Tuesday that the Burma Navy had found 102 more “Bengalis” near an island in Tenasserim Division’s Kawthoung Township in late June. The government is taking steps to deport them to Bangladesh, the report added.

Maungdaw Township authorities said they do not yet know if the boatpeople found in southeast Burma this week would be sent to Arakan State because Arakanese Buddhists had staged demonstrations against the sheltering on Arakanese soil of boatpeople who were detained outside of Arakan State.