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Refugee sailing season just beginning

SITTWE (UCAN): The season has arrived for thousands of Muslim Rohingya from the divided Rakhine state in the Union of Myanmar to once again risk an ocean voyage to Malaysia, potentially reigniting southeast Asia’s biggest refugee crisis since the Vietnam War.

Plans are being hatched inside 10 desperately poor displacement camps outside the state capital, Sittwe, and there are reports that boats left South Maungdaw in northern Rakhine and Chittagong in Bangladesh in mid-October.

“People are preparing to leave by boat, but they are waiting for local smugglers, who are yet to ramp up operations for recruiting. But people will leave soon, for sure,” Khin Mg Myint, a translator at the 200,000-strong Rohingya Thetkapyin displacement camp outside Sittwe, from which residents are forbidden to leave, said.

The departures mark the start of the sailing season that begins once the monsoon season ends. 

Aid groups already fear the worst, despite moves earlier this year by Bangkok—the key transit country—to break up people smuggling rings.

People inside the camps say they fear the exodus could be even larger than the previous season, because 800,000 Rohingya were forced to hand back their identity cards that gave them voting rights, leaving them voiceless in Myanmar’s upcoming November 8 election.

There are also fears that the Arakan National Party, a newly formed amalgamation of two parties with links to hardline Buddhist movements, could win a large majority in the state legislature. This could lead to deportations. Arakan is the former name for Rakhine.

But many people in the camp hope that a victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy will be their salvation.

“I will take a risky boat journey again as I consider that dying on a boat is better than staying in miserable conditions in the camps with no access to health care and employment opportunities,” Yasmin, a mother of four in Ohn-Taw-Gyi displacement camp, said.

Twenty-seven-year-old Yasmin tried to leave for Thailand in May to find her husband, who had left three years earlier, but her boat was forced to return to Myanmar.

Observers believe the situation has become more clandestine since the crackdown on people smugglers earlier this year.

The scale of the crisis was revealed in May after authorities in Thailand finally made a move on traffickers.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 100,000 people have made the journey from Rakhine state and Bangladesh, where grinding poverty is the main driver for migration.

Parliamentarians for Human Rights has warned of a fresh refugee crisis in the coming months.

The Bangladeshi government has promised it will finalise a deal allowing 1.5 million migrant workers to legally find jobs in Malaysia by the end of October—reducing the lure of human trafficking networks.


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