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The wandering Rohingya

The UN takes action this week on a forgotten people. Will it matter?

A group of Rohingya, a Muslim minority ethnic group from predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, pray at a refugee camp in Idi Rayeuk, Indonesia. About 200 Rohingya were discovered by an Indonesian fisherman Feb. 2 after three weeks of drifting at sea. The men now await to see if they will be allowed to stay or will be repatriated to the place they tried to escape. (Peter Gelling/GlobalPost)

IDI RAYUEK, Indonesia — The United Nations describes the minority Muslim Rohingya, who live mostly in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, as some of the most persecuted people in the world.

They live mostly in the western Rakhine State where they are tightly restricted from traveling outside the region by Myanmar’s military junta. They are denied citizenship, passports and the right to own land. Practicing their religion can lead to their murder. Perhaps most humiliating is their inability, under Myanmar law, to marry.

There are an estimated 750,000 Rohingya living in Myanmar and another few hundred thousand living in neighboring Bangladesh. The Rohinyga, who are also unable to hold formal sector jobs, are some of the most impoverished people living in one of the most impoverished countries of the world.

And so, every year, thousands of them attempt escape, making treacherous journeys across the border to Bangladesh, Thailand or by boat to India, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Their story is not often told. Myanmar is a paranoid police state, on par with North Korea, that denies access to foreign journalists. The only access human rights workers and journalists often have to the Rohingya is in the refugee camps and detention centers spread out over the region and even then access is limited. Their plight, however, made international headlines earlier this year when more than a thousand Rohingya refugees washed up on the shores of Indonesia and India aboard tiny wooden, motorless boats — all of them close to death.

“There is likely many more that were never found, that were lost at sea,” said Chris Lewa, an expert on the Rohingya who runs the Arakan Project, a private human rights group. “But it has been very difficult to determine the exact numbers because access has been difficult.”

According to interviews with the refugees, the men were being held in detention centers on islands off the coast of Thailand before the Thai military loaded them onto six boats, dragged them out to sea with little food and water, and no motor, and abandoned them. Weeks later they were discovered by fisherman in Indonesia’s Aceh and the Indian coast guard. About 300 of the so far 1,200 accounted for are thought to have drowned.

The Thai prime minster has admitted to the so-called “push-backs,” citing government concerns over the numbers of Rohingya that had been fleeing to Thailand over the last few years.

“We had no water, no food for three weeks. More than 20 of us died and had to be thrown overboard. We drifted for three weeks, lying on top of each other,” said Alamshah, one of about 200 Rohingya refugees that were rescued of the coast of Idi Rayeuk on Feb. 2. “This camp is no good, but at least here I can pray. In Myanmar, if I pray, I get killed.”

Alamshah has a lot to pray for. Suffering from tuberculosis, he, along with the 197 others, have been living in tents on wet, muddy ground in the backyard of a local village head for months with no end in sight.

This week the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration finally began conducting interviews with the refugees to determine whether they are political refugees in need of protection or economic migrants that should be repatriated to Myanmar. Ultimately, it will be up to the Indonesian government to decide their fate.