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Why are so many Rohingya migrants stranded at sea?

The discrimination against Rohingyas goes back to Burma's independence from Britain

May 15, 2015

The Rohingyas - a distinct Muslim ethnic group who are effectively stateless - have been fleeing Myanmar for decades. But a combination of factors means that they are now stranded in rickety boats in the Andaman sea, causing international alarm.

There are believed to be several thousand Myanmar migrants in boats off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia with dwindling supplies of food and water, and not wanted by any of these countries.

Why are they fleeing Myanmar?

Successive Myanmar governments have been introducing policies to repress the Rohingya since the 1960s, according to Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (Brouk). They argue that Rohingyas are not a genuine ethnic group but Bengali migrants who represent a divisive leftover from colonial times.

They are denied basic services and their movements are severely restricted. The repression of the Rohingyas has gradually intensified since the process of reforms introduced by President Thein Sein in 2011, Brouk says. In June and October 2012 there were large scale attacks on Rohingyas in Rakhine State.

In addition, the government in March revoked white cards - or "temporary registration certificates" - that had been issued to hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas. This meant that they no longer have the right to vote in upcoming elections in November.

So inflammatory is the Rohingya issue that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised for failing to raise it.

In the past three years, more than 120,000 Rohingyas have boarded ships to flee abroad, according to the UN refugee agency.

It published a report in May saying that 25,000 migrants had left Myanmar and Bangladesh in the first quarter of this year, about double the number over the same period last year. Between 40-60% of the 25,000 are thought to originate from Myanmar's western State of Rakhine.

The oppression they suffer there is so severe "that they feel they have no option but to leave", Bangkok-based Rohingya expert Chris Lewa told the BBC.

Why are they stranded at sea?

As many as 8,000 migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar are believed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to be stranded at sea.

The Thai government has recently begun to crack down on smugglers who have traditionally taken them to camps in southern Thailand and effectively held them ransom. As a result the smugglers are now reportedly abandoning them at sea.

Because the countries in the region are unwilling to allow them to land, they are effect being sent back and forth around South-East Asia.

Rohingyas face a lukewarm welcome at best from the countries they hope will give them refuge

Who are the Rohingyas?

- Rohingyas are a distinct, Muslim ethnic group mainly living in Myanmar
- Thought to be descended from Muslim traders who settled there more than 1,000 years ago
- Also live in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan
- In Myanmar, they are subjected to forced labour, have no land rights, and are heavily restricted
- In Bangladesh many are also desperately poor, with no documents or job prospects

What is the attitude to Rohingyas among countries of the region?

"Extremely unwelcoming," says Ms Lewa. "Unlike European countries - who at least make an effort to stop North African migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean - Myanmar's neighbours are reluctant to provide any assistance."

Thailand: Its navy says that it has given aid to migrant boats in its waters, and it has indicated that it may be prepared to allow refugee camps on its shores. But it does not want permanent settlers, and few Rohingyas want to settle in the country even if the alternative is to remain on cramped boats.

Malaysia: This is the choice of destination for most Rohingya travellers, especially because it is predominantly Muslim and short of unskilled labourers. But Malaysia has made clear that it will not accept boatloads of migrants and has ordered its navy to repel them.

Bangladesh: For the last 20 years has been subjected to an influx of Rohingyas, sometimes allowing them to live in camps on its south-eastern border and sometimes sending them back to Myanmar. It is estimated that there are currently about 200,000 Rohingyas living in refugee camps, many in squalid conditions.

Indonesia: Like Malaysia is a Muslim country and like Malaysia has made clear that the Rohingyas are not welcome, with its navy turning away boatloads of migrants. A group of migrants who made it ashore in early May may be expelled, the government has warned.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure that the refugees are fed and watered?

Most aid agencies and NGOs agree that countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have a moral imperative - if not a legal requirement - to do this if the refugees are in their territorial waters.

While these countries have made efforts to provide supplies to the Rohingyas, Chris Lewa argues that none has actively engaged in search-and-rescue operations in the areas immediately beyond their coastlines.

Legal experts point out that some countries may be unwilling to act because by doing so they are more likely to be exposed to the principle of non-refoulement, whereby refugees cannot be forcibly returned to places where their lives or freedoms may be threatened.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May 2015 urged governments in the region to remember their obligations to keep their borders and ports open to abandoned people at sea and to ensure that "the prohibition on refoulement is maintained".

Can the Rohingya problem be resolved?

"Not until or unless the international community puts pressure on Myanmar to improve the lives of the Rohingya community," Chris Lewa argues, "because ultimately it is only Burma who can solve the problem."

Critics point out that what is happening now is in many ways a result of the failure of South-East Asian countries to act decisively.

They argue that for years these countries have quietly ignored the plight of the Rohingyas and as a result now find themselves enveloped in a deepening humanitarian crisis.

Furthermore, the critics say, officials have refrained from discussing the issue at regional conferences for fear of upsetting Myanmar.

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