In early April 2018, the Malaysian navy rescued a total of 56 Rohingya men, women, and children, from a boat which set sail from Sittwe, Myanmar.
Another boat carrying at least 70 Rohingya people, set sail on April 12 and is expected to arrive in Malaysia soon. Reports of Rohingya leaving Myanmar for Malaysia or Thailand have raised fears of boats capsizing and people drowning.
However much remains hidden about the factors forcing Rohingya to flee now. Speaking on condition of anonymity, relatives of the 56 boat people revealed a variety of acute pressures facing Rohingya in Sittwe and the IDP camps of Myanmar. These relatives themselves are currently living in refugee camps of Bangladesh, having left Myanmar last year.
Refugees rescued by the Malaysian Navy come from an IDP camp in Myanmar called Thae Chaung, and a nearby village, also called Thae Chaung. The relatives described conditions in Thae Chaung IDP camp as “very difficult” and “deliberately designed" by the Myanmar authorities "to inflict difficulty.”
Since last year, Myanmar government officials have been trying to force Rohingya fishermen in Thae Chaung to accept NVC cards (National Verifican Cards). And indeed, since last September fishermen have been forbidden to go fishing unless they have accepted the NVC card.
This measure drastically curtailed their income and access to food. Nevertheless, the Rohingya fishermen remained adamant they would not sign up for the NVC card, claiming it to be tantamount to declaring oneself an immigrant from Bangladesh.
Apart from fishing restrictions, there are myriad other restrictions on work and travel faced by those in Thae Chaung IDP camp.
The relatives also revealed land confiscation of up to 50 acres as another reason behind the decision to leave Myanmar. This land grab stretches back to 2012 when violence swept the region and tens of thousands of people were displaced from their homes and put into so-called temporary IDP camps.
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Camera phone picture of the construction work Shafiur Rahman
Two hundred and fifteen of these displaced Rohingya people in Thae Chaung IDP camp owned property not far from the camp itself. According to relatives of the rescued boat people, this property is now being built upon by the Myanmar authorities. They fenced it off in October of 2017 and started construction in January of 2018.
On 27th February 2018, a meeting was held and the Commanding officer of the 36th Battalion, Aung Saw Min, made it clear the property will not be returned to Rohingya owners despite promises made back in 2012. The officer also allegedly followed up with threats of imprisonment directed at those who complained about the construction work, and issued a formal letter to that effect.
It was at this point that some individuals decided it was time to leave before matters escalated further. First they bribed the security forces (loontin) to travel to the harbour.
Once at the harbour they had to bribe the navy after convincing them that they would not go to Malaysia or Thailand. The Myanmar navy would only agree if their destination was Bangladesh. They sailed for a total of 11 days, including an unplanned stoppage in Thai waters because of rough weather and repairs.
Conditions in the Andaman Sea are beginning to become dangerous.
Chris Catrambone of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), an international organization which deals with emergency situations affecting migrants in the high seas, said: "We are just now starting to see the first rains in the Andaman Sea, call it pre-monsoon warm-up, which means monster waves and high winds can creep up in an instant.
“Most importantly, this spells death for Rohingya fleeing by sea in rickety boats.”
In anticipation of further crossings, MOAS is positioning its SAR ship Phoenix on specific chokepoints in the Andaman Sea where it is known Rohingya have transited in the past.
Whilst the route travelled by the first boat is one used by Rohingya refugees in the past, this is apparently the first such crossing in a year.
Myanmar has restricted boat departures since 2015, a year which saw as many 25,000 Rohingya fleeing across the Andaman Sea for Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Regional concerns were impressed upon Myanmar and they tightened up on boat departures.
Currently, discussions about repatriation and/or relocation of Rohingya to remote islands in Bangladesh could prompt more Rohingyas finding life intolerable in the IDP camps, to make the same hazardous journey from Myanmar to Malaysia, rather than to Bangladesh.
This article has been published under special arrangement