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Boat crackdown forces smuggling shift

By Nyan Lynn Aung
March 3, 2016

After last year’s crackdown disrupted maritime human smuggling routes out of Rakhine State, traffickers and those desperate to leave are scouting for alternatives.

Rohingya men repair fishing nets in an IDP camp in Sittwe township, Rakhine State. Photo: Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar Times

The ready pipeline of refugees seeking to flee displaced persons camps continues to fuel the multi-million-dollar smuggling industry. But deterred bystories of abuse and the increasing likelihood of not being able to complete the often-deadly journey, Muslim Rohingya who previously have fled by sea in droves are no longer as willing to crowd onto the converted fishing boats andrisk being stranded as smugglers desert the vessels.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t still desperate to leave.

“Now, some are trying to find another way out, like by flights,” said Aamir, 24, a Rohingya living in Baw Du Pha 1 camp in Sittwe. (All names of Rakhine State IDPs have been changed to protect identitites.) “This way is safer than by boat. Even though it’s possible to be arrested on the way, that means a prison sentence, not death.”

Though his odds may be better with a flight, the cost difference is prohibitively high. A place on a smuggler’s boat costs just K50,000, he said. Many were able to drum up the sum by selling United Nations food rations. By contrast, the cost of forged documents and an air ticket, just to Yangon, is 20 times higher, at more than K1 million per person, he said.

The first half of 2015 saw record numbers of refugees and migrants from Rakhine State and Bangladesh crowding on to smugglers’ vessels. Over 31,000 sailed from the Bay of Bengal to the Andaman Sea, according to UN figures. This represented a 34 percent rise from the previous year, which was up on the year before. But in May, after the discovery of mass graves and jungle trafficking camps in southern Thailand and Malaysia, countries in the regionbegan clamping down on the vast network, enhancing security at departure and arrival points. Boats were left adrift at sea, and more than 370 people died due to abuse and disease – making the route three times more deadly than the smuggling circuit in the Mediterranean.

In the second half of 2015, the flow of departures slowed, but didn’t altogether halt, with another estimated 1600 people leaving on boats.

Police stand guard near a checkpoint in Sittwe township. (Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar Times)

But Aamir is far from the only one trying to flee the IDP camps – and their shortage of work, food, healthcare and education – through overland routes.

Sayyid, 23, said he would rather risk a trip to Malaysia than endure life in a restrictive camp without any job opportunities.

“I must be able to go to Malaysia whatever happens to me,” he told The Myanmar Times.

Sayyid, who lives in That Kay Pyin camp, is the oldest of seven, with three brothers and three sisters.

He said he has been searching for a broker for three months, but has so far been unsuccessful. Two months ago he met a smuggler who promised to take him to a boat, but cheated him of his money instead.

“I decided that I must try to go, whatever happens,” he said. “I must connect with a broker even though they are hiding now because of the crackdown.’’

Sayyid and Aamir are part of a group of 13 people who are all trying to find a way out of the camps they have been stuck in since sectarian violence gripped the state in 2012. Most members of the group are young, male and underemployed.

Over 140,000 people, mostly Muslim Rohingya – officially referred to by the government as Bengalis – remain in the camps. They lack citizenship and are reliant on aid due to restrictions placed on their movement. The Rakhine State government defends the measures by saying the Muslim families are safer in the camps.

But the crackdown on human smugglers has made it even harder for the refugees to use their scraped-up savings and find a way out. This crackdown has included the first police case against human traffickers in Rakhine State, which has grown from an initial arrest last year to now involve more than 50 suspects.

According to the camp residents, the international attention netted by last year’s boat crisis has put the trade under increased scrutiny, making it an even riskier journey.

“People from camps are still finding a way to go abroad themselves,” said U Tin Maung Swe, a secretary in the Rakhine State government office. “However, we are taking effective action to prevent human trafficking. So we have not seen any more boat people recently.”

Camp residents told The Myanmar Times in earlier interviews that government and military officials were involved in the human smuggling trade, or were paid to look the other way. These accusations have also been levelled in annual US Trafficking in Persons Reports, the most recent of which was released in July 2015.

According to the Anti-Human Trafficking Police Unit, smugglers haven’t stopped operating – they’ve just changed their target.

In August, nine Muslim children and the mother of one of the teenagers were arrested en route to Yangon. All 10 had agreed to pay K1 million (US$780) each to a broker who promised to arrange them jobs in Yangon.

Ali, a 55-year-old resident of Baw Du Pha camp, said the Rohingya IDPs are not allowed to go anywhere without permission. Many of the camps are surrounded by policed checkpoints. He added that they have no identity cards, except for those who hold temporary “white cards”, masking them essentially stateless. To go fishing or even to go to the hospital in an emergency requires permission from authorities, a process that can be both costly and time-consuming.

“As we do not have any identity, we become illegal when we go outside our camp,” he said.

In March 2015, the Immigration Department revoked more than 460,000 white cards across Myanmar, the majority from Rakhine. In June, the state immigration officers doled out “pink cards” and said the holders of the cards could apply for citizenship through a verification process, but have given no timeline for when that process could happen.

According to Ministry of Immigration and Population records, over 50 Rohingya Muslims were arrested for illegally entering Yangon. Police have noted cases this year in North Dagon, Shwe Pyi Thar, Thaketa and Hmawbi townships.

The records indicate that the people came from various areas in Rakhine State, such as Ann, Minbya, Pauktaw and Sittwe.

A Hmawbi police officer involved in the arrest of the nine children and the mother last August said the smugglers planned to hide the group in a house until arrangements could be made for a flight.

“We could not open a case for human trafficking so far because we are still investigating the smuggler,” said Police Major Min Naing from the Anti-Human Trafficking Police Unit. “Currently, those [smuggled] people have been charged under the immigration law and sentenced to imprisonment for breaking this law.”

But back in Sittwe, the camp residents are no less determined to get to Yangon, Malaysia or beyond. Naeem, 18, wants to flee to Malaysia. He already attempted a boat crossing in 2012 when he was just 14. His mother caught him just seconds before he was meant to depart with a friend.

“I have heard that it is not a good time for fleeing, but I can’t stop thinking about getting a better life abroad rather than staying here. [It’s] like being in a prison,” he told The Myanmar Times.

“If I had a job in here, maybe I would not go abroad. But here there is no job for me. It is too hard for me to survive here.”

Mahmud, 28, said he has no idea what will be happen to him if he tries to flee by boat or overland. He sleeps outside on a mat because it’s not considered appropriate for him to stay on the floor of a small room he previously shared with his younger sister.

“I have no job. There is nothing for me to stay for here,” he said.

“I am worried because I heard about the suffering of the boat people and that the Malaysia government no longer accepts boat people. But it is better to sink in the water or be sentenced to prison time than to live here, with no opportunities and no rights.”

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