Burma has reached an arrangement to repatriate 200 Bangladeshi nationals rescued from the sea off the Arakan coast last week, after talks with officials from Bangladesh’s Foreign Affairs Ministry on Monday.
The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar said 200 out of 208 people found aboard two boats have been receiving humanitarian support at relief camps in Maungdaw Township’s Ale Thankyaw village.
The report said eight of those found on board the boat are “Bengalis from Rakhine [Arakan] State”—the government’s official term for Rohingya Muslims—and the rest are Bangladeshis from Cox’s Bazar, Chittagong and Dhaka, who had boarded the boats seeking job opportunities in Thailand and Malaysia.
The Burma Navy rescued the so-called “boat people” after they were found stranded off the coast of western Burma on Thursday. They are hundreds of what is believed to be thousands of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis who have taken to the sea in recent weeks, the former fleeing persecution in Arakan State and the latter largely economic migrants in search of better opportunities abroad.
With a Thai crackdown on human trafficking earlier this month, many smugglers have abandoned their boats, leaving thousands stranded at sea. About 3,000 boat people have already washed ashore in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, with those governments at first refusing to allow them refuge. Indonesia and Malaysia reversed course last week, saying they would allow the boats to arrive as long as the international community agreed to repatriate them or resettle them in a third country within one year.
Also last week, a UN delegation led by Vijay Nambiar, a special adviser on Burma to the UN secretary general, and Renata Dessallien, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Burma, visited the camps housing the Bangladeshis, accompanied by the Arakan State chief minister, according to a UN press release.
The statement on Monday said that out of 200 Bangladeshi males on board the ship, 19 were minors.
Nambiar “recognized the rescue had been undertaken with great seriousness and irrespective of the nationality of the stranded migrants,” according to the UN statement, which urged the government to continue its search and rescue operations for other migrants stranded at sea.
Arakan State Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn told the Myanmar International Television (MITV) broadcaster that authorities would take legal action against 17 crew members and the boats’ owner.
“This is a global issue and we are carrying out the task in cooperation with the United Nations,” he added.
The UN and the United States have offered support to the Burmese government to address the issue both nationally and regionally.
“Both sides discussed the seriousness of the situation of migrant smuggling, human trafficking and irregular migration affecting both Myanmar and the broader region,” the UN press statement read. “They agreed on the need for concerted action against the brokers and criminal syndicates involved in perpetrating such activities throughout the region.”
Burma has agreed to participate in a regional meeting on Friday of more than a dozen countries to discuss the issue. An official from the President’s Office initially said Burma would boycott the meeting, to be held in Bangkok, if the word “Rohingya” was used in the summit’s title.
A government spokesperson last week described the crisis as “just a problem of human trafficking,” distancing the events of this month from two bouts of violence in 2012 that cast about 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya, into isolated and underserved displacement camps.
The UN statement on Monday said it “recognizes and appreciates recent improvements in the conditions in Rakhine,” but urged Burma’s government to do more to better the lives of displaced Rohingya and the state’s broader Muslim inhabitants.
“Notwithstanding these welcome improvements, more work needs to be done to address the daily issues of discrimination, restricted freedom of movement, and deprivation of fundamental rights faced by the IDPs and other Muslim populations,” it said.