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Rohingya: end of monsoon prompts fresh wave of boats fleeing Myanmar

A new exodus of boats carrying Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar has begun, with at least six boats carrying hundreds of refugees intercepted at sea or washing ashore over the past month.

The recent flurry of voyages making the treacherous crossing of the Andaman sea to seek refuge in Thailand and Malaysia is close to reaching levels last seen in 2015, which prompted the Thai authorities to crack down on human smuggling networks.

Voyages tend to stop completely during monsoon season, which begins in June and creates dangerous conditions, but the end of the rains in October often leads to a fresh wave of boats taking to the calmer seas. Since August 2017, over 200 lives are estimated to have been lost in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, mainly in the crossing from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

On Tuesday morning, 20 men believed to be Rohingya arrived on the shores of the Indonesian island of Aceh in a small rickety boat, seeking refuge.

The arrival comes after the Myanmar navy picked up 38 Rohingya, 19 men, 11 women, and eight children last week in the Andaman sea, who were heading for Malaysia. After their boat was apprehended, they were detained by the Myanmar police and sent back to Rahkine state, where tens of thousands of Rohingya are forced to live in displacement camps.It is not known yet whether the men who arrived in Aceh this week had fled Rahkine or Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where almost one million Rohingya refugees are living after fleeing a brutal campaign of violence by the military and Buddhist locals, which the UN has described as ethnic cleansing.“We can’t communicate with them because they don’t speak Indonesian, Acehnese, or English. So we don’t know much about them,” said Iswandi, the head of Idi Rayeuk district in Aceh where the Rohingyas’ boat washed ashore.The surge in those attempting to escape by boat is an indicator that the situation in Rahkine, where the UN says Rohingya are subject to “apartheid-like conditions”, remains desperate for the Muslim minority.Displacement camps in Rahkine are home to tens of thousands of Rohingya, who live in dire living conditions with limited access to food and no freedom of movement.On 18 November, 93 Rohingya left their villages near Rahkine’s Sittwe township and Darpaing displacement camp and boarded a small boat to Malaysia, but were found by the Myanmar navy a week later. Days earlier, two boats carrying Rohingya living in Darpaing displacement camp were discovered, both attempting to make it to Malaysia.Caroline Gluck, UNHCR spokesperson, said that while previously, most boats from Myanmar had been headed for Bangladesh, “there are now indications of boat movements resuming with different destinations”.“There are differences between the pattern of these movements compared with 2015,” said Gluck, emphasising that a regional approach was needed to deal with refugees taking to the sea. “The boats are smaller and hold fewer passengers. The disembarkation points have changed. And more robust efforts are being made by the authorities both in Bangladesh and Myanmar to prevent the boats from setting out to sea in the first place.”The renewed exodus from Rahkine throws the possibility of repatriating the 700,000 refugees living in Bangladesh further into turmoil. The tension between the Buddhist communities in Rakhine and the Rohingya has not eased and last week a group of Buddhist Rahkine held a protest against the possible return of the Rohingya and any move to give them citizenship.AFP contributed to this report

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