Amid stalled efforts to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar, many people from the persecuted ethnic minority are seeking a way out and playing into the hands of smugglers.
Hundreds of Rohingya refugees are making perilous journeys by boat across the Bay of Bengal to reach Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Many are detained by border authorities; others perish at sea. Refugees often lose all their savings making these trips.
Bangladesh has been home to 1.2 million Rohingya refugees on its southeast coast of Cox’s Bazar since an influx of refugees in 2017 in the face of Myanmar’s military crackdown.
On the 5th anniversary of the exodus, August 25, frustration is growing in the camps that house the world’s most persecuted minority, as named by the UN.
According to a 2020 UN report, 2,413 Rohingya refugees took risky sea routes to reach a third country from refugee camps in Bangladesh. At least 218 people died or went missing during the trip.
Ansar Ali, a refugee from Cox’s Bazar camp, told Anadolu Agency that one of his cousins was arrested by Myanmar security forces and remained imprisoned for more than a year.
“My cousin crossed the sea border into Bangladesh from Cox’s Bazar refugee camp and landed in Myanmar on his way to Malaysia to join our relatives. His parents there in Malaysia gave him hope for a better life. But everything went in vain as soon as Myanmar border forces arrested him,” Ali said.
Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, head of Coastal Association for Social Transformation Trust (COAST), a non-profit organization that works for the Rohingya, said a sense of hopelessness lingers in the camps.
Relatives who have settled in Malaysia and Thailand, relatively wealthy Southeast Asian economies, send money to refugees, who pay smugglers for the risky journeys, Chowdhury said.
Activists say officials in Bangladesh and Myanmar are working in cahoots with the smugglers.
“Local people from the host community, refugees and Myanmar authorities engage in the trafficking process, which results in mass arrests, rapes and murders,” said Nay San Lwin, co- founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, a global network of activists working to raise awareness about the ongoing persecution of Rohingya.
Since the army took power in Myanmar, thousands of Rohingya fleeing by boat and by road have been arrested and sentenced to two years in prison with hard labour, the activist said.
Since most people have failed to escape the country and are arrested, the smugglers make significant profits, he added.
Government rejects claims
Senior Bangladeshi refugee official Shah Rezwan Hayat has denied claims that Rohingya refugees were leaving the camps in droves via risky sea routes.
“Some of the refugees who participated in such a sea voyage through the Bay of Bengal have relatives or friends in those countries and they want to meet them there. Their number is insignificant and such an event (the sea voyage of a refugee) does not happen often,” he told Anadolu Agency.
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