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.
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.”
If the exodus has subsided for now, the reasons appear to be temporary.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”