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Mothers, children flee Myanmar on desperate voyage

Muslim Rohingha asylum seeker Nuru, 24, with her one month old baby, Muhammad Ayik, at a Thai government shelter in Khao lak, southern Thailand. AFP

The Sun Daily:

26 February 2013 


KHAO LAK,
Thailand (Feb 26, 2013): Homeless, hungry and nine months pregnant Nuru boarded
a rickety boat filled with Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing a wave of deadly
sectarian violence in western Myanmar.

Six days
later she gave birth at sea, far from any hospitals or doctors.

Since
Buddhist-Muslim tensions exploded last June in Myanmar’s Rakhine State,
thousands of Rohingya boat people – including a growing number of women and
children – have joined an exodus from the former junta-ruled country.

Those who arrived
in neighbouring Thailand have been “helped on” by the Thai navy
towards Malaysia further south or detained as illegal immigrants.

Hundreds are
feared to have drowned along the way while others were rescued as far away as
Sri Lanka.

Denied
citizenship by Myanmar, where they have suffered decades of discrimination and
persecution, they left behind a country where they were never wanted – only to
find they are unwelcome elsewhere.

“After
my house was burned down I had nowhere to live and no job,” Nuru, 24, told
AFP at a government-run shelter in southern Thailand, cradling her month-old
baby boy in her arms.

Even though
she was on the verge of giving birth, Nuru decided to make the long and
dangerous journey in the hope of reaching Malaysia. After just a few days at
sea, the food and water ran out.

“We had
to drink sea water and we got diarrhea,” said Nuru.

Some
fishermen took pity on them and gave them water, fish and fuel.

Finally, two
weeks after leaving Rakhine, their flimsy vessel reached an island off
Thailand’s Andaman Coast after a near 1,500 kilometre (900 miles) journey.

But their
ordeal was not yet over.

The men were
separated from their families and sent to detention centres, while the women
and children were confined to the shelter in Khao Lak, a popular beach resort
just north of the tourist magnet of Phuket.

“They
looked terrible. Some of the children drank sea water and had diarrhea. They
vomited and it was full of worms. They looked very scared and upset,” said
a worker at the shelter, which houses about 70 women and children.

“The
journey was very difficult for the pregnant women. They must have been really
suffering to come here,” said the shelter worker, who did not want to be
named.

Some
children even made the dangerous journey alone without any relatives, leaving
behind a country where they were born and raised – but viewed by the Burmese
majority as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

“My
father is disabled so I need to go to Malaysia. I have relatives – an uncle –
in Malaysia,” said Abdul Azim, 12, whose home was burned and mother killed
in the Rakhine unrest.

The boy,
whose name AFP has changed to protect his identity, is one of about 1,700
Rohingya – including more than 300 women and children – detained by Thailand in
recent months.

“These
people are desperate and that’s why we see not just men and boys but now also
women and small children fleeing as well,” said Phil Robertson, Asia
deputy director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“It’s
something that indicates that there is a very, very serious problem in Arakan
(Rakhine) state that the government of Burma needs to attend to urgently.”

Officials
say those already in Thailand will be kept for six months in detention while
the government works with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to try to find other
countries willing to accept them.

“Thailand
itself cannot carry the burden,” said Thai foreign ministry official
Manasvi Srisodapol.

“We
don’t want them to risk danger every year travelling at the sea like this, so
we’d like to see a better environment for them in their country of
origin.”

At one
detention centre in Phang Nga near Phuket, 275 Rohingya men are held in crowded
conditions, denied access to their families. Some have been treated for
illnesses including malaria, chickenpox and tuberculosis.

One detainee
whispered through the bars to a visiting AFP journalist that the men hoped to go
to America or Malaysia.

Hundreds of
others have been blocked by the Thai navy from entering the kingdom as part of
a new crackdown that began after allegations emerged that Thai army officials
were involved in the trafficking of Rohingya.

In Myanmar,
more than 100,000 people have been displaced by the Rakhine clashes, which have
overshadowed a series of widely praised political reforms by a nominally
civilian government which took office in early 2011.

The
government says about 180 people have been killed, but activists fear the real
death toll is much higher.

Myanmar’s
population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya – described by the UN as one of the most
persecuted minorities on the planet – face travel restrictions, forced labour
and limited access to healthcare and education.

Bangladesh
used to be the destination of choice for those fleeing the country, but it has
since closed its border to the Rohingya.

Now many
want to go to Muslim Malaysia, where the UNHCR has already registered almost
25,000 Rohingya, although community leaders estimate actual number could be
double that.

Malaysia
largely turns a blind eye, allowing them into the country but denying them any
sort of legal status that would allow access to healthcare, education, jobs,
and other services, activists say.

The UN
estimates that last year about 13,000 boat people fled Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Few who reach Thailand want to stay permanently, preferring to join relatives
elsewhere.

“I’m
not happy here. I will be happy if I can go Malaysia,” said Abdul Azim. –
AFP