Friday, June 12, 2015

Myanmar to Bar Rohingya From Fleeing, but Won’t Address Their Plight

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For the Rohingya of Myanmar, a Hardscrabble Existence

For the Rohingya of Myanmar, a Hardscrabble Existence

CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times
SITTWE, Myanmar — The government of Myanmar says it is determined to stop the departures of migrants fleeing religious persecution in places like this bitterly divided port city, but it will not budge in its refusal to address the conditions driving the exodus across the sea.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, fled the country in recent months, setting off a regional crisis when boatloads of migrants were abandoned at sea or abused and held for ransom by traffickers.
But the government insists that most of the migrants do not belong in Myanmar, referring to them as Bengalis, and says it has no plans to alter policies that strip them of basic rights and confine more than 140,000 to a crowded, squalid government camp here.
“There is no change in the government’s policy toward the Bengalis,” U Zaw Htay, a deputy director general of the Myanmar president’s office, said in an interview this week.
Under international pressure, as crowded vessels baked and bobbed in the ocean for days with no country willing to take them in, regional leaders met in Bangkok last month, and the immediate crisis was relieved when the migrants were granted temporary refuge.
Rashid Ahmad, a 13-year-old who has no control over his arms and legs, was comforted by his mother at “plastic camp,” part of a government camp in Sittwe, Myanmar, named for the scavenged materials residents have used to improvise dwellings. Doctors said he had polio, his mother says. CreditTomas Munita for The New York Times
But any hope that Myanmar might have been persuaded to soften its position was quickly dispelled.
When a government delegation returned from the talks, the state news media hailed the officials as managing “to refute accusations that the boat people were from Myanmar.”
And those people, despite the reports of horror stories at sea, are no less desperate to leave.
“I can’t stand living here anymore,” said Nur Islam, a fisherman who has languished for two and a half years in the sprawling government encampment. “I have children, and I can’t feed them.”
Two of his six children left by boat for Malaysia this year, and although he has not heard from them, he says he is ready to go, too.
“If I get my hands on any money,” he vowed, “I’m going to Malaysia as soon as possible.”

Temporary Fixes

If the exodus has subsided for now, the reasons appear to be temporary.
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For Rohingya, Days of Waiting

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Recently the departures have abated, though the situation may be temporary. And many remain eager to leave.
 By Poypiti Amatatham, Channon Hodge and Thomas Fuller on Publish DateJune 12, 2015. Photo by Tomas Munita for The New York Times.
In one concession to international pressure, the Myanmar government said it would monitor boat traffic in an effort to crack down on human trafficking. But given the government’s desire for the Rohingya people to leave, its commitment to policing the beaches here may not last.
More to the point, perhaps, the traffickers are lying low after a crackdown on their transit camps in southern Thailand and reports of their abuses have filtered back here. Many of those who left are still unaccounted for.
Last week a man accused of being a trafficker, U Maung Hla, was beaten by a mob wielding metal rods and axes in a vigilante attack by family members of migrants held for ransom.
But perhaps the main reason the migration has slowed is the weather. The arrival of the monsoon season has made seas choppy and dangerous.
Calmer waters will return in October and November, and the traffickers will return as well, experts say, as long as demand exists.

Bamboo Huts and Raw Sewage

Since 2012, when violence erupted between Muslims and Buddhists here and Buddhist mobs set fire to Rohingya homes, the government has herded tens of thousands of Rohingya from Sittwe and other towns and villages into the camp here, an area of only several square miles.
Some 140,000 Rohingya live here in rows of flimsy bamboo huts without electricity. Raw sewage flows through open concrete drains, children are undernourished, and health care is dispensed by overwhelmed medical personnel who have no facility for treating serious ailments.
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Understanding Southeast Asia’s Migrant Crisis

About 25,000 migrants left Myanmar and Bangladesh on rickety smugglers’ boats in the first three months of 2015, according to a United Nations estimate.
The Rohingya here are barred from leaving, a rule that applies even to those who have homes just outside camp boundaries. The government has not said when, if ever, they will be allowed to return to their homes.
“If they force us to stay here longer, every last person will crawl onto boats if they have to,” said Dil Mohamad, 32, a former grocery shop owner who was forced to flee his home in Sittwe when his Rohingya Muslim neighborhood was burned by Buddhist mobs.
The Rohingya who live outside the camps, in countless villages along the border with Bangladesh, describe a different kind of imprisonment. They are closely monitored by the authorities, conscripted into forced labor and barred from travel outside their villages without permission.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship, though many say their families have lived in Myanmar since before there was a border between what was then Burma and the rest of Britain’s empire in southern Asia.
Until the government’s official policy of discrimination took hold in the early 1990s and extremist Buddhist teachings espousing hatred of Muslims swept the country, many Rohingya worked for the government as schoolteachers, firefighters and clerks.
“I’ve told the authorities many times that I am a citizen of this country and that my parents were also citizens,” said Noor Muhammad, 60, a former sergeant in the Myanmar police force who is now interned in the camp. “The government says, ‘Sit here,’ and I followed their orders. But I’m not sure how long we can remain tolerant anymore. We are at the end of our patience.”
Police officers in Sittwe confirm that Mr. Muhammad was a sergeant, but they distance themselves from him. “It is very difficult to trust the kalar,” said U Khin Maung Kyaw, a Buddhist officer, using a derogatory term for people from the Indian subcontinent. “They want to make problems. They want to stab you in the back.”

Improvised Living

Most families in the camp are almost entirely dependent on assistance from the United Nations and foreign aid agencies. The thousands who are not registered camp residents are not eligible for the United Nations rations.
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How Myanmar and Its Neighbors Are Responding to the Rohingya Crisis

Myanmar and its neighbors see the people of the Rohingya ethnic group and the seaborne trafficking of migrants in the region very differently, complicating the refugees’ plight.
Until two months ago, the government provided rice rations to the unregistered, but those have stopped. Very few people in the camp have jobs, so they survive off their savings and the kindness of others.
Mr. Islam, the fisherman, lives in a section called “plastic camp,” named for the scavenged materials the unregistered residents have used to improvise dwellings. In the shack next door, a 50-year-old man with tuberculosis can barely move from his bed. Sitting on a plastic chair outside is Rashid Ahmad, a listless 13-year-old with no control over his arms and legs. Doctors said he had polio, his mother says.
From here, a boat to anywhere looks good.
The estimated 25,000 people who fled Myanmar and Bangladesh this year departed from numerous points along the Bay of Bengal, but the main departure point for migrants here was the beach at Ohn Daw Gyi, a fishing village adjacent to the camp.
There, within full view of a police outpost, they boarded small boats that took them to larger boats waiting at sea. Camp residents say traffickers paid the police to look the other way.
The police officers at the camp have recently been reshuffled, and the new head of the police outpost, Lt. Aung Toe Win, says all boats leaving the area will be checked.
“I can’t tell you what happened before the reshuffle,” he said. “Our new instructions are that every boat needs to show permission before leaving. We won’t let any of the traffickers’ boats pass.”
Kobir Muhammad, a fisherman who was repairing a boat there one recent afternoon, said there had not been a departure of migrants in two months. “If the police don’t allow it, no one can leave,” he said.
But camp residents say that with so many people crammed into so little space and hope in such short supply, more departures are inevitable.
“There are no jobs here; there’s not enough food,” said Abdul Salam, 54, a Rohingya businessman who prospered selling dried fish before his home was burned down three years ago. “They hear that in Malaysia they can get jobs. If they can get even very menial jobs, it’s better than being here.”

Friday, June 5, 2015

68 Migrants Are Found Locked Inside Trucks at British Port

LONDON — Sixty-eight migrants, including two pregnant women and 15 children, have been found locked inside four trucks at a port in southeast England, the authorities said on Friday.
The Home Office said that four Polish truck drivers had been arrested after the discovery, a reminder of the extreme measures that migrants will take to find refuge in Europe, at Harwich International Port in Essex on Thursday night.
The East of England Ambulance Service said several of the migrants, who had been crammed into and locked inside the trucks, were suffering from chest and abdominal pain and were feeling faint.
Seven people, including two women, were taken to the hospital, while the remainder were turned over to the border authorities. The Home Office said the migrants — 35 Afghans, 22 Chinese, 10 Vietnamese and one Russian — were discovered by Border Force officers after they searched several vehicles.
Europe is grappling with spiraling numbers of migrants, who often reach European shores by crossing the Mediterranean in overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels. The issue was called into sharp relief in April when a ship carrying mostly African migrants capsized off the coast of Libya, killing as many as 900 people.
The crisis has polarized Europe, with some countries, including Britain, calling for more aggressive action to root out illegal smugglers.
Other countries, led by Italy, which bear the brunt of illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean, want member states across the European Union to share the burden of dealing with the wave of migrants.
They are backing a quota system proposed by the European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch, that calls for countries to host refugees according to their population and employment levels.
Britain, France and others vehemently oppose the quota proposal, which comes at a time when national budgets are stretched and support has grown for far-right parties that have made the fight against illegal immigration one of their top priorities.
Last year, 35 immigrants were found in a container in Essex at the Tilbury docks, including a 40 year-old man from Afghanistan who had died.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Jungle Camp in Malaysia Yields Graves and Signs of Migrant Abuse

BUKIT WANG BURMA, Malaysia — Among the debris of wood, bamboo and plastic tarpaulin at an abandoned camp in the dense jungle here lies a coffin-size cage made from sticks tied together with rusted barbed wire. Next to it, an enclosure that could have held dozens of people also bristles with barbed wire. And over a ridge, the police have started unearthing bodies from shallow graves.
The police in Malaysia have said little about the grim discoveries at desolate camps like this one on a hillside near the country’s border withThailand. But what was left behind here suggests that the camps were busy holding stations for migrants under the control of ruthless, sophisticated human trafficking rings.
The Malaysian government on Tuesday took reporters on a two-hour trek through a buzzing jungle to view this camp in the state of Perlis, in the country’s far north. It is one of several where investigators say they have identified a total of 139 graves believed to hold the bodies of migrants, including members of the Rohingya minority fleeing religious persecution in Myanmar.
A Malaysian forensics team on Tuesday examined  human remains that were exhumed at the jungle camp in Bukit Wang Burma. CreditMohd Rasfan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Not far across the border, in Thailand’s Songkhla Province, the Thai authorities have uncovered graves containing at least 36 more bodies.
A crackdown in southern Thailand on these human trafficking networks is believed to have triggered the regionwide crisis this month in which thousands of migrants were abandoned by smugglers and stranded at sea. More than 3,000 have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia in recent weeks, and the International Organization for Migration appealed on Tuesday for $26 million to help them.
Muhammad Bahar, a detective with the police in Perlis, said officers exhumed a body on Tuesday from one of 37 primitive graves discovered near this camp in Bukit Wang Burma. He said it was too early to draw any conclusions about the identity of the dead person or the cause of death.
“Another forensic team will confirm later,” he said, standing near the exhumation site, where other officers worked with shovels and hoes. “We have to let forensic do their job.”
But the scene appeared to add weight to reports that migrants smuggled across Southeast Asia by traffickers had suffered extreme brutality. The lower part of the camp was dominated by what appeared to be a holding pen made from wooden poles crisscrossed by barbed wire. On higher ground, a dilapidated watchtower looked over the settlement, which also had a trash pit and a large water tank, suggesting that the site could have been used to hold hundreds of people.
Those who have studied human trafficking said thesyndicates often supplemented their smuggling operations with ransom and extortion schemes. Relatives of those smuggled into Thailand are often called and ordered to transfer large sums in exchange for the freedom of their relatives, according to advocates for the migrants and the migrants themselves.
“They beat you and tell you to call home and come up with the money,” Jeffrey Labovitz, chief of mission of the International Organization for Migration in Thailand, said by telephone. “It’s a ruthless business mentality.”
The trafficking rings demand payments as high as $3,000 to release their clients, who are sometimes starved and abused to put pressure on relatives to come up with the money, according to Alistair D. B. Cook, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
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Understanding Southeast Asia’s Migrant Crisis

About 25,000 migrants left Myanmar and Bangladesh on rickety smugglers’ boats in the first three months of 2015, according to a United Nations estimate.
“Extortion isn’t the word for it,” Mr. Cook said. “The alternative is death. It’s worse than extortion.”
The camps are out of the way, but they sit along a major trading route that links Singapore and the Malaysian peninsula with the rest of mainland Southeast Asia. The route is a hub of legitimate trade as well as a transit point for illicit drugs, smuggled fuel and Malaysians seeking libertine pleasures in freewheeling Thailand.
The Malaysian home minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, said on Tuesday that investigators were examining whether forestry rangers in the densely wooded border region had colluded with human traffickers, according to Bernama, the Malaysian news agency. Some forestry officers have already been detained, he said.
Khalid Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the police in Malaysia, said Monday that the camps were believed to have been occupied since 2013 and that two of them were abandoned only two to three weeks ago,according to Bernama. He said the public disclosure of the suspected graves “proves that the Malaysian government is transparent and not hiding any information involving human trafficking issues.”
But some advocates for Rohingya migrants said the abuses had been largely ignored.
“We hear about families waiting for people to come here, who they never hear about again,” Zafar Ahmad bin Abdul Ghani, the president of theMyanmar Ethnic Rohingyas Human Rights Organization Malaysia, said in a telephone interview from Kuala Lumpur.
“Malaysia needs to investigate Rohingya who have died on the border with Thailand,” he added. “Maybe they also need to investigate the enforcement departments in Malaysia. Have they done enough to enforce and investigate? How can the traffickers cross the border in this area?”
In Wang Kelian, a nearby settlement of paddy fields, some residents said the migrants sometimes appeared and begged for food or cash before moving on by foot. “We know they come through to Malaysia for work, for safety, for family,” said a resident who gave only her family name, Halimah. “But it is shocking for us, too, to learn about how they are treated in the camps.”
A coffin-sized cage was found at the camp. CreditMohd Rasfan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Malaysian officials have said little about how these camps and trafficking networks could have existed, undisturbed, for years. But investigators on the Thai side of the border say the camps operated with the help of local officials, Thai law enforcement officers and residents. Nearly 70 Thai police officers have been transferred from their posts as part of the crackdown.
Last week, a former government official whom the authorities described as a kingpin in the smuggling operation surrendered to the Thai police. Patchuban Angchotipan, who had evaded capture for more than a week, is the former chairman of the provincial administration in Satun, a Thai province where smuggling camps were discovered this month.
In what the police say is a measure of the money involved in human trafficking, the authorities froze more than $2 million of Mr. Patchuban’s assets. Among other businesses, Mr. Patchuban owned companies that ran speedboat and ferry services in the Andaman Sea, which were believed to have been used to transport migrants.
Mr. Patchuban, who is known by his nickname, Ko Tong, has been charged with colluding in human trafficking, illegal detention and abduction for ransom.
In an interview on Tuesday, Police Gen. Aek Angsananont, the deputy commissioner of Thailand’s police force, said the trafficking rings generally smuggled Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants on boats into Thailand and brought them over land to Malaysia.
General Aek, who is leading the investigation in the smuggling rings, said the police have obtained arrest warrants for 77 suspects. Of those, 46 have been arrested, he said, and the rest are “on the run.”
He added that the crackdown had the support of the highest levels of Thailand’s military government and that the police were “clearing the mountains” along the Malaysian border of trafficking operations.
The crackdown began this month when a Rohingya man filed a complaint at a police station in southern Thailand, saying his nephew was being held for ransom. The police investigating the case discovered the mass graves on the Thai side of the border.
The authorities have not disclosed how the individuals found in the graves died, and some bodies were so badly composed that the cause of death may never be known. A doctor at Songklanagarind Hospital in southern Thailand said that medical workers were close to completing autopsies and that the police would soon reveal results.
Increasingly, the Rohingya leaving Myanmar have included women and children. And clues amassed by the Malaysian police from the border camps suggested that children had been among the inmates. Among photos of items recovered from the camps, one showed a pair of mildewed, pink children’s sandals.