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Small-scale people smuggling reported in Myanmar

An unidentified Rohingya boy works on a boat in Sittwe, Myanmar. The U.N. reports small-scale smuggling operations in Myanmar at the end of 2015. (Photo by Suphapong Eiamvorasombat/

By John Zaw
January 6, 2015

Disruption of sailing networks limits scope of trafficking operations

An estimated 1,000 refugees have been smuggled out of camps in Myanmar since September, a U.N. spokeswoman said.

Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said those being smuggled out of the camps were likely a mixture of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis.

"That brings to some 32,000 the total number of estimated departures [last] year," she said.

A large-scale movement of Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state had not appeared by the end of 2015, despite the beginning of sailing season.

Chris Lewa from the Arakan Project — an NGO working to improve the situation for Rohingya — told that the only movement tracked by the end of 2015 were five boats that had embarked from Maungdaw and Chittagong in September.

"We do not expect large movements because the smuggling network has been disrupted but I guess there may be a few boats here and there leaving anyway," she said.

The scale of the Rohingya refugee crisis was revealed in May after authorities in Thailand clamped down on smuggling routes, leaving thousands of migrants abandoned at sea.

More than 4,000 migrants subsequently landed in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh and an unknown number perished at sea.

The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have made the journey from Rakhine state and neighboring Bangladesh, where grinding poverty — rather than persecution — is the main driver of migration.

Myanmar has sent back almost 1,000 Bangladeshi to their home country after the navy rescued them in the territory of Myanmar in May and June, with the last batch of 48 Bangladeshi being repatriated Dec. 2.

The Rohingya have been fleeing persecution in Rakhine state since sectarian violence erupted in 2012, leaving scores dead. About 150,000 people are confined to displacement camps in apartheid-like conditions, while thousands of people have tried to make a perilous journey to Malaysia through Bangladesh and Thailand with the assistance of people smuggler networks. 

The Myanmar government doesn't recognize Rohingya and regard them as 'Bengali,' implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many having lived in Myanmar for generations.

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