Another migrant crisis is brewing in the Bay of Bengal

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. We’ve been hearing a lot about Europe’s migrant crisis and the thousands of desperate people who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Africa and the Middle East. Now there’s a similar crisis taking place halfway across the globe in Asia. In this case, the migrants and refugees are from Burma and Bangladesh, and they’re risking their lives in the waters of the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. Their goal is to try and reach Malaysia, Indonesia, or Thailand, but those nations are flat out turning the migrants away, so that now many of the migrants are stranded at sea in ships abandoned by the smuggler crews. The BBC’s Akbar Hossain is in southern Bangladesh. You were there today, Akbar, when the Bangladeshi coast guard brought ashore one of these abandoned ships. What kind of condition were these people in?


Akbar Hossain: They were in a very, very poor condition, I should say. When I was talking to many of them, they looked half-dead and they couldn’t speak properly. Many of them got sick, and they were so tired because they didn’t have enough food or water when they were on the boat for the last two months. So, the situation was very difficult for those people. And their faces were telling me how helpless and how poor they are, and these people, they are very, very desperate to go to Malaysia in order to look for a better opportunity, a better job there, because these people are unemployed here inside Bangladesh.


Werman: Were there any deaths among them while they were out at sea?


Hossain: There were 116 people on the same boat, and all of them were very lucky to get back, nobody died. But they have seen people in other boats, they were just looking for help and they were just looking for food and water, and they couldn’t do it. They said a few people are floating--dead bodies--are floating in the sea, which is very close to Myanmar and Thailand.


Werman: I gather there are thousands more migrants still at sea, is that correct?


Hossain: Exactly. I have got information from the Bangladeshi coast guard, and even the people who came back, floating in the sea after two months, they are telling me that they could see a few boats carrying 3,000-4,000 Bangladeshi people along with the Rohingyas. They were floating in the sea. Because, as I told you, the Thai authorities and Malaysian authorities, they have started to crack down against illegal trafficking. So, that’s why this boat couldn’t get to the shore, they couldn’t get to the coast. So, they were just floating in the sea.


Werman: You spoke of the economic refugees who were making this trip. You also mentioned Burma’s Rohingya people, who are fleeing political persecution. So, it’s not just economic, is it?


Hossain: It’s both. For Bangladeshi people, this is an economic crisis. Many people, they are very desperate to have a job outside the country because there is not much employment opportunity within Bangladesh. And Rohingya people, who are coming from across the border in Myanmar, they have taken shelter here. More than 400,000 Rohingyas have taken shelter in Bangladesh in the last decade. So, those people are living in refugee camps all nearby.  They’re not having a good life at all here. So, those Rohingyas are also desperate to find a good job outside Bangladesh because they need to have a better life, they need to have a good life. So, that’s why these people have become desperate to go to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, or anywhere else.


Werman: My BBC colleague Akbar Hossain there speaking with me from southern Bangladesh. You heard him mention the Rohingya. They’re members of a minority ethnic group in Myanmar, or Burma, that many of us are not familiar with, and that’s a challenge for us as we try to explain why so many Rohingya are now migrants risking their lives at sea. So, we asked Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division to help us. He’s based in Bangkok. And Phil, the United Nations labels a Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Start with the basics for us: who are the Rohingya and how did they end up in Burma?


Phil Robertson: Well, they’re an ethnic group in the far western state of Burma, an Arakan state. They’re Muslim. There is a disputed narrative about the Rohingya’s origin and how they arrived in western Burma. However, what is clear is that they have lived there for generations.


Werman: The Rohingya are Muslims, correct?


Robertson: That’s correct.


Werman: Why has the Burmese government not protected them?


Robertson: Well, the Burmese government claims that the Rohingya are not Burmese citizens, that these people are immigrants and therefore they have no rights to be in Burma. They allow them to stay because there’s between 800,000 to 1.2 million Rohingya there. But they are essentially locked down in the towns and villages where they are. The Burmese government doesn’t recognize the Rohingya as citizens. They are not included as one of the 135 ethnic groups listed in the 1982 Citizenship Act, and as a result, they come under a whole set of restrictions from the government, including restrictions on movement, inability to own property, restrictions on the right to marry, to have children. And when combined with the violence we’ve seen, and now the forced displacement of over 150,000 Rohingya into camps where they’re essentially locked down and surrounded by Burmese security forces and hostile Rakhine communities, these people have no livelihoods. They have difficulty accessing health services, their children can’t go to school, they even have difficulty getting adequate food.


Werman: If there are over a million Rohingya in Burma, how does the Burmese government defend its position not to give them citizenship?


Robertson: With bluster, anger, and denial. The Burmese government tells the international community, “If you like them so much, you take them.”


Werman: What about the Burmese people? Is anybody coming to the defense of the Rohingya?


Robertson: The Burmese people have largely bought into the narrative of the Burmese government, that the Rohingya don’t belong, and so the Rohingya have surprisingly few allies in domestic politics. Even the Nobel Peace Prize winner and NLD leader, the opposition stalwart Aung Sang Suu Kyi, she’s declined to take up the cause of the Rohingya as well.


Werman: Is it possible the Rohingya were actually better off when Burma was run by a full-on military regime?


Robertson: That’s a very good question. Certainly the change of government away from a pure military regime into something that’s quasi military or partly civilian has allowed for some of these ethnic tensions to bubble up. But also in 1978 and in 1992, there were also significant persecutions against the Rohingya by the Burmese military. In 1978, the Burmese military drove 200,000 Rohingya out of the country by force. So, it’s not like the Rohingya have been getting special treatment by the previous governments either. This has been a continuous policy of efforts to control them.


Werman: What happens now with the Rohingya on these boats? Is it possible they go straight back to where they came from? And if so, then what?


Robertson: They will not be accepted back by the Burmese. So, it’s not possible for them to return. We’re very worried, because Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have all come up with policies saying that they are not going to allow the 6,000 to 8,000 people that we believe are floating on boats offshore to land in any of their countries, that they will essentially push them off. They say that they will provide fuel and food and water for them, but that they’re not welcome to land. And that raises a fundamental question of where are these people in these boats going to go? If they can’t go to those three countries, there’s very few other places that they could make it too. If they try to go to Singapore, I’m sure Singapore will turn them away. Beyond that, there’s Australia, and we all know that Australia has been turning away boat people for the last several years.


Werman: Phil Robertson is with Human Rights Watch’s Asia division in Bangkok. Thank you very much for your time.


Robertson: Thank you.


Werman: By the way, we recently spoke with a photographer who visited one of those camps in Burma. He took some pictures of Rohingya as they chatted with loved ones via laptops at Internet Hut. You can see these really moving photos at PRI.ORG.