Rohingya back in Myanmar pay off traffickers to save migrants stranded at sea

Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar residing in Malaysia protesting outside the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur on May 21, 2015. The United Nations says desperate relatives are buying back some migrants on boats that are stranded off Banglades
Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar residing in Malaysia protesting outside the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur on May 21, 2015. The United Nations says desperate relatives are buying back some migrants on boats that are stranded off Bangladesh or Myanmar, paying traffickers around US$300 (S$401) per head. -- PHOTO: AFP

SITTWE, Myanmar (AFP) - As Mr Mahmoud Yasien kneeled before the people smugglers and begged for his pregnant wife's life, the Rohingya migrant's dreams of a better life evaporated, his ship stranded hundreds of kilometres from its destination in Malaysia.

His pleas spared her life, and when phone calls relayed news of their nightmare journey back to their community in a displacement camp in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, neighbours cobbled together the cash to pay off the smugglers and buy them back from the boat.

"She was unconscious and they said they would throw her in the water. But I begged at their feet and apologised. That's why they didn't throw her overboard," said the 24-year-old, who arrived back in Anauk San Pya camp outside the town of Sittwe on Sunday.

His entreaties for mercy were not, however, enough to spare Ms Bebe Nu Asha, who is eight months pregnant, the beatings or starvation rations handed out by the smugglers who held them at sea for 40 days.

An estimated 2,000 other migrants remain stranded on ships off Myanmar and Bangladesh - with little food or water - as smugglers mull their next move after a Thai crackdown disrupted established trafficking routes through that country, which had long been used to funnel fleeing Rohingya to Malaysia.

The United Nations says desperate relatives are buying back some migrants from those boats for around US$300 (S$401) per head - stemming the smugglers' losses after their cash-cow networks further south were pulled.

Fears for the passengers' safety are mounting with the monsoon storms ready to lash the region.

But life in Anauk San Pya, one of a cluster of bleak sprawling camps of bamboo huts provided by overseas donors to the marginalised Rohingya, is not much better, Mr Yasien says.

"If we went to Malaysia, we would be able to eat... We have nothing here, no job. If we get food, we will eat. Otherwise, we die," he said.

- Camp misery -

The Muslim Rohingya are stateless and reviled by Myanmar's Buddhist majority, who deny their estimated 1.3 million community rights by describing them as foreigners.

Some 140,000 people, the majority Rohingya, were displaced by deadly communal violence in Rakhine in 2012 between local Buddhists and Rohingya.

Each year thousands try to flee Rakhine State, with the rate of departures particularly high at this time of year as many are desperate to leave before the monsoon adds further danger to an already perilous crossing.

Food in the camps is carefully rationed, limited to staples such as rice and pulses, and suffocating restrictions prevent the Rohingya from travelling and working.

The wiry and energetic Mr Yasien had not had a job for three years when he finally made the decision to sail to Malaysia with his wife.

Trapped inside the camps, the couple said they were struggling to stretch their food supplies and were desperate to leave the small room they shared with eight other relatives.

Friends already settled in Malaysia had found menial work, Mr Yasien said, achieving at least a modicum of security that currently eludes Rohingya back in Myanmar.

Mr Yasien described how he and his wife took a small boat under the cover of darkness to link up with the larger ship they later found themselves stranded on - the trip was advertised as taking just a day.

"There were many boats in the sea. Three boats with about four, five or six hundred (passengers) each are still waiting," Mr Yasien said.

Around 100 people have returned in recent days from the ships and local people say that few Sittwe people are now onboard.

The remaining passengers are split between those from Bangladesh and others from northern Rakhine, where Rohingya communities live in isolated villages penned in by security restrictions.

- 'We will go again' -

State authorities, who refuse most of the Rohingya citizenship, are also keen to underplay the region's reputation for volatility and segregation as they deny that their policies are among the root causes of South-east Asia's migrant crisis.

They have begun implementing a controversial "action plan" for the blighted state, including allowing some 2,000 displaced people to build permanent homes in several areas near the camps in Sittwe.

While a total of 27,000 people are currently earmarked to be resettled, the plans suggests they will still be unable to return to their former homes and villages.

State Secretary Tin Maung Swe insisted the situation in the camps had improved, lauding the recent arrival of electricity.

"They don't want to go anywhere. They can grow anything, they can live safely," he told AFP, claiming the numbers in the camps were stable in a suggestion that most of the boatpeople at sea were not Rohingya.

Residents offer an alternate view, saying conditions are dire for the Rohingya, viewed by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

And recent events do not appear to have deterred all camp residents, raising the prospect of a revival of the smuggling networks that transport them.

"If we cannot get food to eat, we will go there again," Mr Yasein said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.