Rohingya migration will continue in 2016 despite risks: Experts

BANGKOK - There were fewer boat people taking to the sea from Myanmar's Rakhine state last winter compared to the previous year - but it is difficult to be certain about the coming weeks.

Mr Mohiuddin Mohamad-Yusof, president of the New York-based World Rohingya Organisation, warned in an e-mail that "200,000 Rohingyas may leave Rakhine state in 2016".

So far, however, the estimates by key agencies are more conservative.

"It's hard to predict the number of people who could take to boats in the Bay of Bengal in the coming months," Ms Vivian Tan, spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), wrote in an e-mail to The Straits Times.

"An estimated 1,000 people have done so since September 2015, far fewer than over the same period last year," she added.

"There are reports that smuggling networks and potential travellers are taking a wait-and-see approach in view of recent government crackdowns in the region and the elections in Myanmar. But unless the root causes of the movements are addressed, these boats are unlikely to stop," she said.

Solving the problem at its root is a dim prospect when minority Muslim Rohingya continue to be discriminated against in Myanmar.

Insistence that they are historically illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh and that "Rohingya" is a term invented for political leverage leaves limited, if any, scope for improvement in the community's situation, even after the National League for Democracy (NLD) forms the next government on Feb 1.

A woman walks past a row of container homes at a container village for migrant construction workers on the outskirts of Bangkok on Dec 4, 2015.

State chief ministers are appointed by the President. Until the Nov 8 general election, the chief minister of Rakhine was an army major-general and a Burman who steered a firm middle path between extremists on both sides - Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingya.

In Rakhine, the state assembly election was won by the Rakhine Nationalities Party (RNP), which wants one of its own installed as chief minister, which would tilt the political equation against the Rohingya. Hence the warning from Mr Mohamad-Yusof that the number of boat people will increase in the weeks ahead.

"The Rakhine (party) was able to win the people's mandate to wipe out the Rohingya as foreigners or illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh by winning the 2015 election," he wrote.

Out of a population of about 1.2 million Rohingya in Rakhine, some 140,000 live in camps for the internally displaced following violent attacks in 2012 by majority Buddhist Rakhines, who have a visceral fear of being swamped by Rohingya eager to grab land and Islamise the state. The Rohingya were not allowed to vote in the Nov 8 election.

Facing a dead end

Thus the Rohingya - stateless and disenfranchised and facing a dead end - will continue to take to the sea. In what numbers is the question.

The flood of boat people from Bangladesh and Myanmar saw several South-east Asian countries scrambling into action in 2015.

About 95,000 people have set off from the coasts of Myanmar and Bangladesh to make the treacherous sea crossing to Malaysia since 2014. In that time, more than 1,100 died at sea, with hundreds more buried in unmarked jungle graves on the Thailand-Malaysia border at sites used by human smugglers and traffickers to hold them while extorting money from their relatives.

At a meeting in Bangkok in December called by a Thai government under pressure to burnish its human rights record, more than 20 countries agreed that a coordinated regional response was the only way to deal with the problem.

While little has emerged in terms of concrete action, agencies involved in managing migration are optimistic.

"It was encouraging to see affected countries coming together to discuss preparedness," noted Ms Tan of the UNHCR.

"It showed the growing consensus that this is a regional challenge that calls for coordinated action," she said.

"We would like to see states in the region set up a regional mechanism to coordinate efforts not just on law enforcement but also on locating and rescuing boats in distress, facilitating passengers to land and providing reception facilities in accordance with states' international obligations."

Separately, IOM spokesman Joe Lowry said in an e-mail: "People are committed to a dialogue and all the right issues - life saving, safe disembarkation, access, humanitarian aid and root causes - are being discussed."

The UNHCR had 153,850 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with it in Malaysia at the end of September 2015, with the overwhelming majority - 142,630 - from Myanmar and the rest from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and other nations. The Rohingya are the biggest by number of migrants in the region.

Rohingya Muslim minority children pass time in a refugee camp outside Sitttwe, Rakhine state, on Nov 7, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Must fend for themselves

In Malaysia, a pilot scheme which allows registered Rohingya refugees to take up some jobs legally has been welcomed as a step forward towards their integration into the labour market.

The long-delayed scheme is the way forward, analysts say. Currently, many of the Rohingya in Malaysia - their preferred destination - scraped a living as labourers or doing odd jobs. The pilot scheme could better integrate them.

"There are areas that are in need of labour and other areas in need of jobs; there probably need to be more legal channels for migration so that we don't end up unintentionally subsidising the smugglers."

Beyond jobs, the Rohingya must fend for themselves; there are no provisions for housing.

"That's not really being discussed," said a regional expert who attended the Bangkok meeting but asked not to be named. "People will integrate as much as they can."

There remains, however, a fear in countries in the region - principally Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand - that more organised resettlement and integration will "open the gates", said Mr Andrew Bruce, regional director of the IOM. "There are from 800,000 to 1.2 million Rohingya, and you have to assume that a lot of those will come," he said in an interview.

His words found an echo in Indonesia's drought-prone Nusa Tenggara Timur province, which in early 2015 saw an influx of boat people landing or being rescued just offshore.

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan told The Straits Times that on a recent visit to the province, he was approached by a local resident who told him: "The boat people do have problems, but we are poor.

"If the government helps them and their problems go away, we are still poor."

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