Crisis over fleeing Rohingya Muslims

2014-10-26 07:27
A young Myanmar Muslim Rohingya refugee looks on behind an iron fence at Indonesia's Belawan immigration detention centre in Medan city located on Sumatra island. (Romeo Gacad, AFP)

A young Myanmar Muslim Rohingya refugee looks on behind an iron fence at Indonesia's Belawan immigration detention centre in Medan city located on Sumatra island. (Romeo Gacad, AFP)

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Yangon - A growing sense of desperation is fuelling a mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar, with the number who have fled by boat since communal violence broke out two years ago now topping 100 000, a leading expert said on Saturday.

Chris Lewa, director of the non-profit advocacy group Arakan Project, said there has been a huge surge since 15 October, with an average of 900 people per day piling into cargo ships parked off Rakhine state.

That's nearly 10 000 in less than two weeks, she noted, one of the biggest spikes yet.

Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 50 million that only recently emerged from half a century of military rule, has an estimated 1.3 million Rohingya.

Though many of their families arrived from neighbouring Bangladesh generations ago, almost all have been denied citizenship. In the last two years, attacks by Buddhist mobs have left hundreds dead and 140 000 trapped in camps, where they live without access to adequate health care, education or jobs.

Lewa, who has teams monitoring embarkation points, is considered the leading authority on the number of fleeing Rohingya. But boats are now shoving off from more and more places, she said, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of how many are leaving.

Aggressive campaign

"The real number may be higher," Lewa said.

She said some Rohingya families have received phone calls notifying them that ships from the latest exodus have started arriving in neighbouring Thailand, where passengers often are brought to jungle camps, facing extortion and beatings until relatives come up with enough money to win their release.

From there they usually travel to Malaysia or other countries, but, still stateless, their futures remain bleak.

In Myanmar, the vast majority live in the northern tip of Rakhine state, where an aggressive campaign by authorities in recent months to register family members and officially categorize them as "Bengalis" - implying they are illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh - has aggravated their situation.

According to villagers contacted by The Associated Press, some were confined to their villages for weeks at a time for refusing to take part in the "verification" process, while others were beaten or arrested.

More recently, dozens of men were detained for having alleged ties to the militant Rohingya Solidarity Organisation, or RSO, said Khin Maung Win, a resident from Maungdaw township, adding that several reportedly were beaten or tortured during their arrests or while in detention.

Rakhine state spokesperson Win Myaing denied any knowledge of arrests or abuse.

"There's nothing happening up there," he said. "There are no arrests of suspects of RSO. I haven't heard anything like that."

The UN, which has labelled the Rohingya one of the most persecuted religious minorities in the world, earlier this year confirmed figures provided by Lewa about a massive exodus that began after communal violence broke out in June 2012, targeting mainly Rohingya.

Read more on:    myanmar

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