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Why thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar, only to be stranded at sea

May 15, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now a story of desperation and migration, as refugees take to the sea in Asia, but struggle to find safe harbor.

Hari Sreenivasan reports on this burgeoning humanitarian crisis in the region, one no country is in a rush to solve.

MAN: How long have you been on the boat?

HARI SREENIVASAN: The people on this rickety fishing boat say they have been at sea for three months, fleeing poverty in Bangladesh and persecution in Myanmar, once called Burma. The captain and crew abandoned them six days ago, they told journalists from The New York Times, who filmed this video.

In recent days, they were turned away from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. They’re part of an estimated 6,000 people on boats in the waters around the three nations; 1,600 other migrants were rescued by the Malaysian and Indonesian navies earlier this week.

Since November, an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people have left Myanmar and Bangladesh. Many are from the Rohingya, a Muslim minority which has been persecuted by the Myanmar government.

For more on the exodus from Myanmar and Bangladesh, we turn now to Sarnata Reynolds, senior adviser on human rights at Refugees International, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of refugees.

So, just to bring our audience up to speed, who are these people?  Why are they getting into boats and running from where they live today?

SARNATA REYNOLDS, Refugees International: So, the Rohingya are an ethnic minority in Myanmar. There are about 1.3 million of them in the country, although, over the last 2.5 years, 10 percent of them have fled on boats.

They have lived in the country for generations, some for hundreds of years. But the government has decided to persecute them and has, over the last three years, beaten them with impunity, put them into camps, told them that they have to call themselves Bengali or they will be detained, and otherwise basically left all humanitarian access out, so they can’t even get food or medical care or even go to school.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And this is ironic, because Myanmar has been kind of slowly taking steps towards opening economically, opening politically. But these — this particular sect of the population, it doesn’t seem like this is a priority at all.

SARNATA REYNOLDS: And, in fact, it’s gotten worse. Ironically, as the country has become more open to the international community, the state of the Rohingya has declined.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, tell us a bit about the journey. What is it like when they get on these boats?

SARNATA REYNOLDS: Well, I have actually talked to Rohingya about this passage. I met people both had been on the boats and been sent back, and people who were going to take the journey when I was there last fall.

And what they told me was that, oftentimes, they think they’re going to — they have gotten on a boat and they know they’re probably going to have to work when they land wherever they’re going to land. They hope for Malaysia at this point. They know that they will owe money for the passage, but they don’t — they hope that they won’t become the prey of traffickers. They know that’s a risk.

They also know that being detained upon arrival is a risk. But they’re so desperate to leave that they take the risk anyway. The journey itself is brutal. They don’t know how long they will be on the water. Even when they’re being fed, it’s not very much. And water, of course, is always an issue.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, just a couple of days ago, we had, I think, a Navy vessel from one of these countries actually restock them with supplies and then leave them at sea.

Why aren’t the countries taking them in?  What’s their justification or rationale for the way that their immigration policy is?

SARNATA REYNOLDS: So, there’s no real good rationale for leaving people to die at sea.

The reason that countries are reacting in this way is because the Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar for decades. Bangladesh is the closest country. You can basically walk there from Rakhine State, where they’re from. But Bangladesh already has between 250,000 and 500,000 Rohingya there. And so it’s closed its border. It’s said no more.

Thailand was the place people went next. It’s the closest country after that. There’s already 100,000 Rohingya there. And Thailand again has closed its doors. It’s putting people in detention. And, as we saw over the last week or two, people end up in these terrible trafficking camps in the jungle and they’re left to die even there.

There’s been mass graves found there as well in the last few weeks. Malaysia and Indonesia basically say, this isn’t our problem. This is Myanmar’s problem. And they’re right. But, unfortunately, in the meantime, while this persecution continues, they have to protect these people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, what happens to the people who do make it somehow on land, who, whether illegally or not, get through?  What’s their life like in these countries?

SARNATA REYNOLDS: It’s still, unfortunately, generally miserable, so most of them will probably be detained when they arrive if they’re picked up. Obviously, if they get through, they won’t be.

But they’re at the bottom of society. They have no documentation whatsoever. They are desperate to make any income. And so of course they’re going to take the hardest jobs. They’re going to be exploited. I talked to one man who told me that he — he had left so that he could some make money, so that his family who were in the camps in Myanmar have food and medicine, because they can’t get food and medicine.

And he said that basically he worked everywhere and anywhere he could, and it could have been the dirtiest, most dangerous work. It didn’t matter. It was work.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Sarnata Reynolds from Refugees International, thanks so much.

SARNATA REYNOLDS: Thank you.

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