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Boat People - Setting Sail for a better life

By Moo Ko Htee www.burmaissues.org

As the monsoon season is drawing near, the sea conditions are worsening. Con sequently it is not safe for small boats to travel across the Andaman Sea and the number of boats is decreasing. However, during the calm, from late October until mid-March, boats carrying people desperate for a better life increased – dramatically. Since November 2006 at least 29 boats carrying people from Bangladesh, predominantly Rohingya from western Burma, headed to Malaysia have been captured in southern Thailand. More than 1,700 people were traveling on these boats in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

Since 2003 boats have been leaving Bangladesh headed to Malaysia. What is new is the number of people who are going The conditions on the boats are very harsh. Most boats are so overcrowded that passengers cannot move around freely or bath. As the trip takes around one week, passengers and crew only take enough water, food and fuel for the seven days. The boats are generally very old and in disrepair, consequently they often break down. Boats that have broken down end up drifting until they can receive help from passing traffic on the ocean. However while they are drifting, which can be for several days, the passengers often have little food and water.

However this is not a new phenomenon. Since 2003 boats have been leaving Bangladesh headed to Malaysia. What is new is the number of people who are going. The number of boats and people leaving Bangladesh has increased dramatically since November 2006, in comparison to past years. This can be attributed to changes in the push and pull factors associated with people leaving western Burma and heading to Malaysia as a third country.

The people who are seeking passage on the boats are all males (based on information available), and the majority are young men aged between 18 and 30. There are also cases where children as young as 10 have been found among the passengers. The passengers fall into four different categories:

  1. Rohingya from inside northern Arakan State
  2. Rohingya living in Bangladesh, but outside the refugee camps
  3. Registered refugees from the two official camps in Bangladesh
  4. Bangladeshi from Teknaf-Cox's Bazar area (near where the boats leave from)

Most of the boat people are either Rohingya from northern Arakan State who come to Bangladesh for a short period of time, a few days or a week, before boarding the boat or Rohingya living in Bangladesh but outside the refugee camps. The other two categories make up the rest of the passengers, but it is very difficult to estimate the portion of passengers depending on these categories.

The reason for the dramatic increase in the number of boats leaving Bangladesh is due to both push and pull factors. The push factors include unchanging situation in northern Arakan State, western Burma, and in Bangladesh. For Rohingya in Burma life is hard. They face a daily battle for survival - facing harsh conditions under the Burmese military junta including widespread mass forced labour demands, land confiscation and arbitrary taxation. In some cases Rohingya's have their land confiscated, without compensation, and are forced to work on their land unpaid for the military, as well as provide materials or money for the project. The military also forces Rohingya's, who are predominantly Muslim, to demolish mosques and pay for or build Buddhist temples in towns and villages where the population is mostly Muslim.

Additionally Rohingya's are denied Burmese citizenship, making them stateless within their own country. Consequently their lives and rights are severely curtailed by the military. The movement of Rohingya people is severely restricted, affecting their ability to work and receive education. They are also required to apply for special permission from local authorities to get married, which is usually dependent on a bribe and is arbitrarily denied. The human rights abuses perpetrated in northern Arakan State are well documented by numerous groups including Amnesty International.

However, for those that leave northern Arakan State, unable to survive in Burma any longer, Bangladesh offers little respite. Since 1995 new refugees have been denied access to the official camps in Bangladesh. For those both inside and out of the camps, they face hardships, and are often harassed by local people and camp officials, marginalized and stigmatized. In itself Bangladesh is a poor country with a population that is struggling. The added pressure of hundreds of thousands of refugee often leads to anti-Rohingya sentiment among the population and leaves people from northern Arakan State vulnerable.

While the push factors despite deterioration have remained fairly constant, the pull factors have changed dramatically. One of the most significant pull factors was Malaysia's announcement that their immigration department would begin registering Rohingya giving them residency and work permits. This announcement, which was made in October 2004, was widely disseminated in northern Arakan State and among refugee and migrant communities in Bangladesh. The registration only came into effect in August 2006. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees was not involved in the registration process; instead the Malaysian authorities relied on a few Rohingya community representatives to perform the registration. As a result of how the registration process was carried out there were widespread allegations of corruption and fraud, and the process was suspended after only 17 days.1 Despite the suspension of the registration process there has not been mass information dissemination to Rohingya in northern Arakan State and Bangladesh. Consequently people are still making the journey on the false assumption that when they reach Malaysia they will be able to find employment and be issued with a work permit.

As with the opening of any opportunity for desperate populations, there are those that exploit the situation in order to turn a profit. And sadly this has been the case in this instance. Following Malaysia's announcement regarding issuing work and residency permits to the Rohingya there was a rapid expansion and consolidation of smuggling networks from Bangladesh to Malaysia. The trip costs approximately US$850 (there are some variations of the price), with passengers having to pay US$300 on departure. The rest is paid back once the passenger has arrived in Malaysia, either by family members, friends, or through bonded labour. Findings from research carried out by The Arakan Project - a human rights organization focused on documenting and reporting on the situation in Arakan State - show that most of the networks are organized by Rohingya living in Malaysia who arrange for other Rohingya to bring their friends and families over with the promise of jobs and registration on arrival. Another network that brings people from northern Arakan State and Bangladesh to southern Thailand has started. This journey costs less than US$300 and people involved with this network have little or no contact with people in Malaysia. The consolidation and development of these smuggling networks has meant that it is easier for people to leave Bangladesh, enabling them to be pulled towards Malaysia and the promise of jobs and legal status.

Previously Rohingya people have been able to obtain work permits from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. However, this has changed. The Saudi Embassy in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has restricted issuing the Umra visa which enables people to make in the pilgrimage to Mecca (a significant event in the life of a Muslim). There has also been a decrease in the demand for unskilled labour in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, following the bombing campaign in Bangladesh in August 2005 by Islamic extremists there has been a crack down on the illegal trade of identification documents. Consequently this has made it difficult for Rohingya to obtain a Bangladeshi passport necessary to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Without documents this limits migration routes that the Rohingya can use. In the past Rohingya migrated to Pakistan through smuggling routes, however, the construction of a barb-wire fence along the Indo-Pakistan border has all but shut this smuggling route down. This has meant that Malaysia is the only viable and relatively affordable destination where Rohingya's can expect to find jobs and be issued with a work permit. Additionally, it is the only option they have if they do not have travel documents.

The majority of boats that leave Bangladesh with passengers destined for Malaysia do not make it. Instead they arrive in Thailand where passengers are arrested. Once arrested, people are transported to Bangkok, however, it is not clear what happens afterwards.

The push and pull factors are so strong that the Rohingya are willing to do anything to escape a terrible situation where they are literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. We, as a global community, are not doing enough to address the issues - a real solution needs to be found that address the root cause of the problem, as well as providing safe, alternative short term stopgaps for vulnerable populations in the meantime. The Rohingya desire a better future with rights and dignity and they are willing to go to the extremes of selling everything they own in pay for a journey to Malaysia on a boat that is little more than a human coffin for an uncertain future. Shouldn't we be willing to go to the same extremes in order to help?

All information unless otherwise stated is from « The Rohingya Boat People », The Arakan Project, February 1st, 2007.


1. SUARAM press release August 30th, 2006

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