On the high seas, a fruitless wait for an unwanted minority

The Phoenix, a search-and-rescue boat run by a Malta-based charity group, on the patrol for Rohingya refugee boats in the Andaman Sea, on May 8, 2018.

ABOARD THE PHOENIX, on the Andaman Sea (NYTIMES) - We were looking for Rohingya. There were none.

For nearly a week this month (May), the Phoenix, a search-and-rescue boat run by a Malta-based charity group, had scoured the Andaman Sea for Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar in rickety boats.

Not many Rohingya have taken to the seas this sailing season, unlike in previous years when at least 80,000 people risked a dangerous passage and hundreds died along the way. But we had word that a wooden skiff crammed with 36 Rohingya was chugging its way past the camber of Myanmar, along the isthmus of Thailand, to Malaysia.

At least 60,000 Rohingya work in Malaysia, mostly as unauthorised laborers. Still, a hard life in exile is better than conditions back home in Myanmar's far western Rakhine state, where the military and civilian gangs have unleashed rape, slaughter and a forced evacuation on the Muslim minority.

The Phoenix's captain, Marco Cauchi, has been with the Malta charity, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, ever since the group began rescuing tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean in 2014. Cauchi had calculated the probable speed of a dilapidated fishing boat and consulted local nautical charts to determine a likely point of interception.

"This crossing is much more dangerous than the Mediterranean," Cauchi said. "It's days and days. They run out of food. They become dehydrated. These small wooden boats are not made for this long trip." The peril was imminent. In April, during a 20-day journey to Indonesia, only half of the 10 Rohingya aboard survived. The dead were thrown overboard.

For three days, we idled in international waters between Myanmar and Thailand waiting for the boat to appear on the horizon. A storm hit. The crew scoured the swells for upturned boats. Nothing.

Rohingya Muslims once felt they belonged in Myanmar, a diverse nation with dozens of ethnic groups. A Rohingya elite served as lawyers, doctors and property barons; others fished and farmed.

But a xenophobic Buddhist-dominated military regime turned against the Rohingya. The civilian administration that now governs Myanmar has not shown much more care. Most Rohingya have been rendered stateless by the Myanmar government.

No other country seems to want them, either, whether by land or sea, as our journey on the Phoenix reflected.

Last year, after the Myanmar military and local mobs laid waste to hundreds of Rohingya villages, in an outburst of violence that some UN officials have called genocide, around 700,000 Rohingya fled west to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Though Bangladesh has allowed for the construction of the world's largest refugee settlement, the government has no wish for the Rohingya to stay. It talks publicly, if unrealistically, of mass repatriation to Myanmar.

Thailand, on Myanmar's eastern flank, has not provided any welcome. Some Thai officials were found to be complicit in the trafficking of Rohingya on a route that went by boat from Myanmar to Thailand, then over land through jungle to Malaysia.

This lucrative trade was disrupted in 2015, when mass graves were discovered on the Thai-Malaysia border. Many of the victims were people whose families could not pay trafficking fees that could suddenly double en route.

Dozens of Thais, including an army general, were eventually jailed for involvement in the people-smuggling network. But the crackdown on trafficking has resulted in a deadly outcome: Thailand tends to push back any Rohingya boat that drifts into its waters, no matter the vessel's condition.

This year, at least three Rohingya skiffs, including one with a weakened engine in a storm, were refused sanctuary, according to human-rights groups and some Rohingya who were on one of the boats.

Malaysia has pushed boats on, too, although it did take in one Rohingya vessel in April.

"This refugee issue is a very delicate matter for the Royal Thai Navy," said Cmdr Supanat Dhanasilankura, the head of public relations for the Royal Thai Navy. "We gave them water, we gave them food. And when they were ready to leave, we pushed them to continue their travel to a third country." Declining to accept a boat in distress violates the law of the seas. By international maritime convention, passing boats are required to try to save a vessel in mortal danger. The government that controls shores closest to the point of interception also has a duty to give refuge.

In the Mediterranean, the Malta charity group has used these international rules to its advantage, pressuring countries like Italy to take in migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

The Andaman has turned out to be a different case. At the beginning of the patrol, the Phoenix communicated its intent to save Rohingya in peril to the Royal Thai Navy. But as the Phoenix entered an area near Thai waters, a Thai maritime patrol aircraft swooped low over the boat. The next day, a Royal Thai Navy submarine hunter ship shadowed the Phoenix.

"Talk about shooting a mosquito with a bazooka," said Mary Horetz, an Irish nurse, who was on the Phoenix to treat any Rohingya in need of medical attention after days on the open sea. "Do they really think we're so frightening?" From the Royal Thai Navy corvette, with its guns in attack position, the Thais transmitted a radio message: The Phoenix did not have permission to drop anchor in Thai waters. A port call would be allowed, but with disembarkation fees that were so much higher than usual that the US founder of the Malta charity, Christopher Catrambone, called them "extortion".

"What the Royal Thai Navy did was pure intimidation," Catrambone said. "We are an unarmed humanitarian ship who communicated openly with them about our mission, and they chose to see us as a threat."

The Royal Thai Navy says its actions followed protocol. "From what I heard, the boat was trying to enter Thai waters," Supanat said. "And when we did not give permission for them to anchor, the Thai government has the right to do any actions within our territorial sea and the contiguous zone."

As a result of the Thai warning, the Phoenix retreated into international waters. Cauchi, the captain, worried that we might miss the fishing skiff crammed with 36 Rohingya if it chose to hug the coast on its journey south.

With Thailand and Malaysia not eager to accept boats, it's difficult to see anything but disaster if the seaborne migration of Rohingya picks up again.

As we scoured the waters north of Thailand's Similan Islands, news arrived from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, where around 120,000 Rohingya have been imprisoned in internment camps since 2012. The boat with 36 Rohingya had turned back because of engine trouble.

The Phoenix, stocked with life jackets and a full medical clinic, would not be saving any Rohingya this sailing season. The monsoon would soon be coming, making the Andaman too dangerous to cross.

A few days later, a different story emerged from Rohingya leaders in Sittwe. The boat, they said, had been intercepted by Myanmar maritime authorities less than 30 nautical miles from where we were waiting. Cauchi's calculations had been right.

The week before, another vessel laden with Rohingya had been captured by Myanmar patrol boats. In both cases, those on board were arrested and charged with the crime of being "illegal migrants". That designation is meant to highlight the supposed foreign roots of the Rohingya, who the Myanmar government contends originally came from Bangladesh. But it also raises a question: If the Rohingya are truly foreign interlopers in Myanmar, why are they being stopped from leaving?

"They don't want us here and they don't want us to go," said Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya lawyer now interned in Sittwe. "It makes our lives impossible."

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