Tue, Feb 26, 2013 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Desperate refugees flee from Myanmar for uncertain future

AFP, KHAO LAK, Thailand

A Rohingya asylum seeker stands inside a cell on Feb. 14 at the immigration detention center in Phang Nga, southern Thailand.

Photo: AFP

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 in June last year in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, thousands of Rohingya boat people have joined an exodus from the former junta-ruled country.

Those who arrived in neighboring Thailand have been “helped on” by the Thai navy toward 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, said 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,” Nuru said.

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 1,500km journey.

However, their ordeal was not over.

The men were separated from their families and sent to detention centers, 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 has been 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,” he said.

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

At one detention center in Phang Nga near Phuket, 275 Rohingya men are held in crowded conditions, denied access to their families.

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