Local authorities at a refugee repatriation camp in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state have resettled 17 members of a group of 170 Rohingya boat people detained by the country’s navy last month, and are in the process of investigating the rest, officials said Thursday.
The boat people were discovered on Dec. 15 aboard a boat in the Andaman Sea as they were attempting to leave the country and have been transferred to the Nga Khu Ya repatriation center in Maungdaw township.
Among the group are 82 men, 68 women, 13 boys, and nine girls. Military officials believe they had run away from refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The 17 that were resettled reunited with their families in Darpaing and Thaechaung villages in Sittwe township with the cooperation of village heads, local officials said.
Authorities also determined that an additional 29 are from Maungdaw district.
“The [boat people] are still under investigation, but we were able to identify that 29 of them are from Maungdaw district,” said Soe Aung, an administrator for the district, in an interview with RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“According to UEHRD's plan, we have noted their personal data and will issue NVCs [National Verification Cards] to those who want them,” he added.
The Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD) is a public-private partnership enterprise that promotes stability and economic development in Rakhine state. It was established by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in October 2017 in the aftermath of a brutal military-led crackdown on the Rohingya Muslims in the northern part of the state.
Myanmar’s National Verification Card scheme for identifying Rohingya is a process which human rights organizations say deprives members of the Muslim minority of basic human rights.
“After [issuing the NVCs], we will send them to Hla Pho Khaung transit center in Maungdaw, and authorities will support them with some money while they are staying there,” Soe Aung said.
“If they have somewhere to go or have friends who want to receive them, we will let them go,” Soe Aung said.
The remaining 126 boat people are still being processed, with authorities citing language differences as the reason for delays.
Soe Aung said that many of the boat people are from Bangladesh, but investigators still do not know how many Bangladeshis are among the group.
Win Hlaing Oo, deputy director of the repatriation center, told RFA that investigators are attempting to determine whether the people actually resided in Rakhine state.
“If so, we will issue them NVCs,” he said. “After that, the state government and General Administration Department will work on resettlement process for them.”
Rohingya activist Thar Aye commended authorities for returning the boat people to their homes.
“It is a good solution to send them back to their homes because they didn’t commit any crimes,” he said. “But we also need to take action against the people who trafficked them so that there won’t be another case like this in the future.”
RFA could not reach Win Myat Aye, Myanmar's minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, for comment.
The 172 boat people were picked up just days after Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader, defended the country before the U.N.’s top court in The Netherlands on genocide charges for the army’s alleged expulsion of more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims in 2017. The Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh where they now live in sprawling displacement camps.
Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and systematically discriminates against them by denying them citizenship, freedom of movement, and access to jobs, health care, and education.
In recent years, thousands of Rohingya have fled or attempted to flee persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar on boats organized by human traffickers and bound for other Southeast Asian nations.
Reported by Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Eugene Whong.