Rohingya Continue to Flee West Burma in Thousands

By Samantha Michaels 12 January 2013

RANGOON–Thousands of people have fled from Burma’s restive Arakan State and neighboring Bangladesh in the first week of this month alone, the UN refugee agency reported, warning that the plight of displaced persons in the region continues to grow more severe.

More than 2,000 people left the region on smugglers’ boats in the first week of the year, most likely to other countries in Southeast Asia, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a news briefing on Friday in Geneva.

That adds to an estimated 13,000 people who left the Bay of Bengal on smugglers’ boats in 2012, UNHCR said, with at least 485 still missing or believed to be dead after four reported boat accidents.

“It is unclear how many actually make it to their final destinations, where they often risk arrest, detention and possible refoulement through deportation to Myanmar [Burma],” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said in the news briefing, according to a statement released later by the agency. He was referring to an international customary law of non-refoulement that says migrants should not be returned to countries where they could be subject to persecution or human rights abuses.

Arakan State, in western Burma, was the site of severe sectarian violence last year between local Buddhists and Muslims. The United Nations estimates that more than 100 people were killed and more than 115,000 displaced in clashes beginning in June.

Tensions have eased since then, but tens of thousands of people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, continue to live in overcrowded camps in the state where food and other basic staples are in short supply.

The UNHCR report on Friday came the same day that about 700 Rohingya migrants were rescued from alleged human traffickers in southern Thailand.

The migrants said they had traveled voluntarily to Thailand as part of their journey to a third country, the Associated Press reported, adding that Thai authorities planned to deport the group back to Burma.

Edwards urged countries in Southeast Asia to keep their borders open to Rohingya migrants and others seeking asylum.

“UNHCR continues to seek access to individuals arriving by boat who are arrested and detained by government authorities,” he said, adding that the refugee agency had asked Thai authorities for access to newly-arrived migrants from Burma but were still waiting for a response.

An estimated 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live in Burma, mostly in Arakan State, according to UN estimates. The government does not grant them citizenship or recognize them as an official ethnic group, and although many Rohingya families have lived in the country for generations, locals often view them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, Rohingya Muslims also face discrimination and are widely seen as a strain on limited resources.

In July, the Bangladeshi government ordered aid groups to stop helping Rohingya who were fleeing from violence in Burma.