“Caught between a crocodile and a snake, some Rohingya refugees choose the deep blue sea” by Su-Ann Oh

2018/34, 4 April 2018

In the refugee camps in Bangladesh, there is a common saying that the choice between living in Myanmar or fleeing to refugee camps in Bangladesh is akin to that between a crocodile and a snake. Almost 900 000 Rohingya, or Bengali as they are referred to in Myanmar, have sought refuge in Bangladesh. The majority fled after insurgent attacks on police stations and border guards, and subsequent military operations in Rakhine State, Myanmar at the end of August last year. The conditions in Bangladesh are squalid and bleak, with 90 per cent of the refugees dependent on food assistance and a considerable number living in makeshift shelters. To make matters worse, the monsoon season consisting of heavy rain and cyclones has begun in Bangladesh. There is a real danger of landslides, floods and waterborne diseases.

Meanwhile, there have been reports of the Burmese military forces conducting ‘area clearance’, burning Rohingya villages after they were emptied, setting up military bases on these sites, and offering this land to surrounding communities. If these reports are accurate, it would appear that the Burmese authorities/military are systematically removing traces of Rohingya existence in northern Rakhine State and making it impossible for them to return.

Some Rohingya refugees are seeking a way out of this bind by making the sea voyage to Malaysia. A few days ago, a boat carrying 56 Rohingya made a stop in Thailand before it was escorted towards Malaysia by the Thai navy. This boat marks the beginning of another cycle in the Rohingya exodus. Since the Andaman Sea crisis of 2015, where a few thousand Rohingya and Bangladeshi passengers were abandoned by their smugglers, there have been very few sea voyages of this kind.

There is huge concern that the 2015 crisis might be repeated this year and on an even larger scale. The lives of these asylum seekers are at risk as Thailand and Malaysia maintain a “push-back” policy with regards to refugee arrivals by boat. Those who manage to arrive in these countries face an indefinite stay in detention centres or shelters if they are caught by the authorities. A holistic and humane solution for this regional issue is urgently needed. If the governments of Southeast Asian countries do not act soon, we might witness another Andaman Sea crisis.

Dr Su-Ann Oh is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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