Thai navy escorts boat carrying Rohingya towards Malaysia as overcrowding in squalid Bangladesh refugee camps worsens
Rohingya migrants attempting the boat routes south have been a rare sighting since Thai authorities clamped down on regional trafficking networks in 2015, leaving thousands of migrants abandoned in open waters or jungle camps
A boat carrying dozens of Rohingya refugees was sailing to Malaysia Monday, as fears grow about overcrowded camps for the stateless minority fleeing violence in Myanmar.
The boat with 56 refugees briefly stopped on a Thai island Sunday before naval authorities there escorted it towards Malaysian waters.
Nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have sought shelter in southern Bangladesh since Myanmar launched a brutal crackdown on insurgents in August that the US and UN have called ethnic cleansing.
But the refugees have arrived to find cramped settlements and often squalid conditions in Cox’s Bazar, where hundreds of thousands who fled previous waves of persecution are already living.
An agreement to repatriate Rohingya from Bangladesh to Myanmar’s Rakhine state has yet to see a single refugee returned.
Rohingya migrants attempting the boat routes south have been a rare sighting since Thai authorities clamped down on regional trafficking networks in 2015, leaving thousands of migrants abandoned in open waters or jungle camps.
The boat arrived off Thailand’s western coast in Krabi province early Sunday due to bad weather.
Images showed the passengers, who said they were Rohingya, being interviewed on shore and then getting back into the boat before departing.
Krabi governor Kitibodee Pravitra confirmed that the people travelling on the boat were Rohingya but said he did not know where they had come from.
“The initial report said they were docking near Koh Lanta this morning to avoid the storm,” he said, referring to an island popular with tourists. “They want to go to Malaysia.”
He said there were about 56 women, men and children on board and that the Rohingya would continue toward their destination.
A Thai official who was involved in the response said naval authorities escorted the boat towards Malaysia and that it was expected to arrive Monday.
He said local villagers donated food to the Rohingya and that they were “happy” with the help.
Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, an independent research and advocacy group, said the boat that stopped at the Thai island came from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state but distant from the violence that has uprooted hundreds of thousands.
“There will be one or another like this arriving. We can say that there have been a few attempts of boats fleeing, but they were aborted and this boat seems to be the first to make it,” she said.
“It is also the end of the sailing season as well. So, we do not expect a mass exodus at least until after the monsoon,” said Lewa, referring to the usual onset of the annual monsoon season in April. She noted as well that Myanmar’s border security is tight enough to limit unauthorised boat departures.
Many of the Rohingya ensnared in the 2015 boat crisis wound up in Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia as Thailand stuck to a policy of not accepting the vessels.
The Thai official said in this case it was “their wish to continue the journey to the neighbouring country”.
Bangladeshi economic migrants have also taken the boat routes south.
There are nearly 70,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers living in Malaysia, according to the most recent statistics from the UN refugee agency.
In a televised speech on Sunday Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for her people to remain united, her country faces “challenges” at home and abroad, as she marked two years since her party swept to power in a historic vote.
Suu Kyi made only a passing reference to the crisis in Rakhine state, where her government faces mounting international condemnation for a military operation against Rohingya Muslims.
“The world’s focus in on Rakhine right now, but we also need to peacefully develop the country.”
Suu Kyi spoke about her number one priority – to end decades of fighting between ethnic rebels and the military, which has kept Myanmar in a state of near-perpetual civil war since independence in 1948.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters