FEATURE: Desperate refugees flee from Myanmar for uncertain future

AFP, KHAO LAK, Thailand

Tue, Feb 26, 2013 - Page 6

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.

Hundreds of others have been blocked by the Thai navy from entering the kingdom as part of a new crackdown that began after allegations emerged that Thai army officials were involved in the trafficking of Rohingya.

Myanmar’s population of about 800,000 Rohingya face travel restrictions, forced labor and limited access to healthcare and education.

Bangladesh used to be the destination of choice for those fleeing the country, but it has since closed its border to the Rohingya.

Now many want to go to Muslim Malaysia, where they are allowed into the country, but denied any sort of legal status that would allow access to healthcare, education, jobs and other services, activists say.

The UN estimates that last year about 13,000 boat people fled Myanmar and Bangladesh. Few who reach Thailand want to stay permanently, preferring to join relatives elsewhere.

“I’m not happy here. I will be happy if I can go Malaysia,” Abdul Azim said.