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.
Regional leaders, including those from Myanmar, are on the resort Island of Bali this week to discuss the problem of migrants and, in particular, the Rohingya — though little is expected to come of the meeting. Myanmar has said it would take the Rohingya back if it could be proved they originated from Myanmar, no easy task for people denied citizenship.
The whole process could take many more months and the men are getting anxious that their perilous journey could lead them right back to the place they so desperately left.
Earlier this week, seven of them made a run for it.
There is very little security at the camp, and in fact the refugees stand around on the street outside chatting with volunteers and local government officials. The camp is meant to be closed to journalists. This journalist, however, walked right in with a notebook and a camera and managed to do several hours of interviews without a problem.
And so, at 4:15 in the morning, with most everyone still asleep, the seven men slipped away.
They were all later apprehended by the Indonesian military. When they were questioned they said that following their interviews with the International Organization for Migration, they were convinced they’d be deported.
“I’ll go somewhere, I’ll stay here, but I can’t go Myanmar. There (is) no work. In Myanmar, the Buddhists kill us. They take our sisters and kill us if we say no,” said Nurul Lah, 20, in the little English he has learned during his travels. “It is just too dangerous for me.”
At the camp here in Idi Rayeuk (see map below) they are free to pray and on sunny afternoons they enjoy competitive games of volleyball. But sanitation is basic, as is food, and supplies are running out. Health care is almost non-existent — a serious problem for the dozens of them suffering from potentially life-threatening diseases.
International aid agencies, already strapped for cash and spread thin across the globe, have not jumped at their cause and as a result the management of the camp is in the hands of one small nongovernment organization, the Building Bridges Foundation, a few even smaller local nongovernment organizations and a local administration that is in no way equipped to care for almost 200 men.
Perhaps luckily, the men landed in a place where the people can relate to their dire situation. The Acehnese here had long suffered from a decades-old separatist movement and Idi Rayeuk once served as a launching point for Acehnese trying to escape. The locals have generously donated food and clothing, an incredible gesture considering their own financial situation.
“Here they have little money but they give clothes, food and other things,” Nurul said. “In Myanmar – nothing.”
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