A boat carrying 56 Rohingyas from Myanmar survived a rough weekend storm before being intercepted Tuesday by Malaysia’s navy, which allowed the refugees to come ashore there on humanitarian grounds, Malaysian officials said.
It was the first boatload of refugees confirmed as having left Myanmar for Southeast Asia this year. The interception comes after a massive campaign waged against the ethnic Muslim minority group since last August by Myanmar’s military and its allies, which has thus far driven some 700,000 people to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh.
An exodus of Rohingya fleeing the violence by sea had been feared for months but failed to materialize. A crackdown on human trafficking by nations along the Andaman Sea route has mostly held since 2015, after tens of thousands of Rohingya migrants on rickety boats fled oppression to Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Hundreds perished at sea that year, while others were captured by human traffickers and held at jungle camps in Thailand.
“Although the root causes of refugee outflows have not been resolved, we have not seen any large movements since May 2015, mainly due to intensified regional law enforcement efforts and greater awareness of the risks of the dangerous journey,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement Tuesday, referring to Rohingya boat journeys from Myanmar to countries in Southeast Asia.
The Rohingya have faced decades of persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which denies them citizenship and describes them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh—though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The recent violence against them, which Myanmar’s government has called a response to terror attacks staged by Rohingya, has drawn international condemnation. It has added to the hundreds of thousands of the group who had already been scattered and adrift in Rakhine, displaced during earlier bouts of violence and living in tightly-controlled camps.
“The situation is very bad,” said Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer living in a camp for internally-displaced people on the outskirts of Sittwe. “There is no electricity, no education, no hospital, no health care. We are getting by as beggars. It’s getting worse.’’
Rohingya activists and analysts following the conflict said it was unlikely that Tuesday’s passage signaled a return to high levels of sea escapes by members of the minority group. Factors preventing it included the monsoon season, which begins this month and will be accompanied by occasional cyclones—making the Andaman Sea, a key thoroughfare in the voyage from Myanmar to Southeast Asia, virtually impassable.
The small boat arriving in Malaysia was carrying Rohingya from Myanmar’s central Rakhine state, an area south of where Myanmar’s military campaign has been at its most ferocious. The refugees boarded the vessel on an unknown date in the state’s port city of Sittwe, local Rohingyas said.
It docked off the west coast of Thailand in Krabi province on Sunday, where Rohingya disembarked and were fed by locals while they waited out the storm.
By Tuesday, the boat had arrived in Malaysian waters. The country’s Maritime Enforcement Agency issued a statement saying that the refugees were being processed by the immigration department, and had been provided with food and medicine. Their ranks were made up of 19 men, 17 women, 12 girls, and 8 boys, according to Malaysian authorities.
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