Myanmar will house more than 200 boat people its navy rescued off its shores on Friday in a village in the western part of the country, as authorities work to determine the refugees’ nationalities, according to local officials.
The navy found two boats, one with passengers and another nearly empty but containing some food, said Shwe Than, a police officer in Rakhine state where the refuges are being kept.
“So far, most of the ones we have checked are from Bangladesh,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “They said the Bangladeshi navy found them and tried to arrest them. They entered Myanmar’s sea territory while they were running to avoid arrest by the Bangladeshi navy.”
The rescued refugees were taken to an Islamic school in Maungdaw district where immigration officials and border police are determining their status, he said, adding that human traffickers planned to send the migrants to Malaysia.
The refugees—mostly men in their 20s and 30s who appeared weak—said they had been at sea for two months with limited food as they were headed to Malaysia to find work, Shwe Than said, adding that some of them did not speak Burmese.
“We still need to check where they are exactly from,” he said. “Whenever we have found several boats in this area during the last few years, they all have been from Bangladesh.”
In addition to the more than 200 refugees, 17 boat hands were on board along with two others who appeared to be human traffickers, Shwe Than said. It was not clear what authorities had done with those 19 people.
Maung Maung Ohn, chief minister of Rakhine state and Vjay Nambiar, United Nations Secretary General's special adviser on Myanmar, will visit the boat people on Saturday, he said.
The Rakhine state government has provided the refugees with 100 boxes of noodles and 50 bags of rice and already arranged places for them in refugee camps, Maung Maung Ohn told RFA.
“We are collaborating with the United Nations and international NGOs to assist them,” he said, adding that only four or five of the refugees appeared to be from Rakhine state, where most of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya live.
Of the Bangladeshis among the refugees, he said: “We have to send them back to their country. We will work on it together with the government of their own country."
‘Pretending to be Rohingya’
The rescue of the boat people came following a comment by Myanmar’s military chief General Min Aung Hlaing that some of the boat people who recently landed in Malaysia and Indonesia were pretending to be Rohingya so they could get U.N. aid.
It also came a day after a top U.S. diplomat had urged President Thein Sein to stem the crisis by helping the thousands of persecuted Rohingya who have fled Rakhine state and are still stuck at sea.
Myanmar’s government refers to the 1.1 million Rohingya who live there as “Bengali” because it views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many have lived in the country for generations.
The U.N. estimates that 130,000 ethnic Rohingya have fled Myanmar by sea since a violent and deadly clash with majority Buddhists in mid-2012. Others, who were displaced by the violence, remain housed in camps in Myanmar.
Those who have fled by sea have fell victim to human trafficking in the Bay of the Bengal after paying smugglers to transport them to other countries, only to be intercepted by traffickers who have held them captive and demanded ransom for their continued passage.
“We don’t accept what other countries have accused us of such as that we have discriminated against and ignored Muslim refugees in our country,” Maung Maung Ohn said. “Some even have said we are committing genocide.
“We have even helped refugees from other countries, and we are doing our best for them. I have brought all international representatives to Muslim camps in Rakhine state to show them how we have been taking care of these refugees."
Reported by San Maw Aung and Zin Mar Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated b y Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.