RANGOON — The Burmese government on Monday met with foreign diplomats to address the ongoing crisis of human trafficking along the country’s western coast, vowing to collaborate with regional governments to combat trafficking while denying that a recent exodus was caused by conflict and discrimination in the country.
Speaking to reporters after a closed-door conference in Rangoon, Minister of Information Ye Htut denied that the crisis at sea was related to the treatment of stateless Rohingya Muslims in western Burma’s Arakan State, also known as Rakhine, calling it “just a problem of human trafficking” that should be resolved by all governments affected by the trade.
“Some people said that these people tried to escape from Rakhine where there is conflict, but we do not agree with this,” the minister said. “Traffickers brought these people to Thailand and Indonesia. This is just a case of human trafficking. As we are a member with other [Asean] countries and the international community, we will work together to solve this problem.”
The minister did not commit to attending a May 29 multinational summit hosted by Thailand to address the crisis, which is believed to have left thousands of people from Burma and Bangladesh afloat on abandoned boats with little or no food and water as neighboring countries refuse to let them approach their shores.
Many of the so-called “boat people” were found to be Rohingya Muslims who left Buddhist-majority Burma to seek asylum in Malaysia. The Rohingya, with a population of about 1.2 million, are denied citizenship and remain subject to discriminatory policies in Burma.
The Burmese government does not recognize the term Rohingya, referring to the group instead as Bengali, implying that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The minority bore the brunt of deadly inter-communal riots beginning in 2012 that left an estimated 140,000 people displaced in squalid and isolated camps, where they are denied mobility and public services.
Reports over the past three years point to an expansive human trafficking scheme originating in the Bay of the Bengal, whereby Rohingya and other migrants pay smugglers to transport them to other countries, but are intercepted by traffickers who hold them captive in camps and demand ransom for their continued passage.
Pressure has increased in recent weeks to find a solution, after a mass grave was unearthed near Thailand’s border with Malaysia. Dozens of bodies, most believed to have been trafficked Rohingya, were exhumed from the site, prompting a crackdown that led to the discovery of several other such camps in the jungles of southern Thailand.
Human rights monitors warned that Thailand’s crackdown on inland trafficking camps could worsen the problem by leading traffickers to abandon the boat people at sea. That fear proved all too real last week when reporters found a boat packed with hundreds of people and a broken engine floating near a Thai island in the Andaman Sea.
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have all stated their intention to “push back” boats entering their waters, against the pleas of the United Nations and rights groups that accused the relevant governments of playing “human ping pong” with the refugees.
Hundreds rescued from several boats off the coast of Indonesia in recent weeks—including men, women and children—are being held in makeshift facilities where they face an uncertain future.
Ye Htut said the government of Burma would cooperate with other countries to determine whether those who reach shore are from Burma, an approach seen as problematic by rights groups because the Rohingya do not hold citizenship in any of the concerned countries.
“Our position is very clear,” Ye Htut said. “First, we have to start a verification process to determine the status of these people. If they are coming from Myanmar and they have enough evidence to prove that, Myanmar [is] ready to bring them home.”
The United Nations refugee agency estimates that 25,000 people have left western Burma and Bangladesh in rickety boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many departures as the same period in 2014.
Rights groups warn that the numbers of those currently at sea could be extremely high this time of year, as it may be the last chance for migrants and asylum seekers to leave before the monsoon season makes waters too difficult to navigate.
The International Organization for Migration recently warned that as many as 8,000 people could still be stranded at sea awaiting rescue.
Asked whether there would be any immediate relief for those still at sea, EU Ambassador to Burma Roland Kobia said after Monday’s conference that, “[t]hese people can’t wait too long to get solutions, so I think there was a wide agreement around the table that things need to be done now, even in a conservatory manner, but to try to avoid people dying at sea and to try to find a longer term solution.”