KHAO LAK, Thailand: 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 last June in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, thousands of Rohingya boat people – including a growing number of women and children – have joined an exodus from the former junta-ruled country.
Those who arrived in neighbouring Thailand have been “helped on” by the Thai navy towards 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, told AFP 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,” said Nuru. 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 1,500 kilometre (900 miles) journey. But their ordeal was not yet over.
The men were separated from their families and sent to detention centres, 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 AFP has 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.”Officials say those already in Thailand will be kept for six months in detention while the government works with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to try to find other countries willing to accept them.
“Thailand itself cannot carry the burden,” said Thai foreign ministry official Manasvi Srisodapol.
“We don’t want them to risk danger every year travelling at the sea like this, so we’d like to see a better environment for them in their country of origin.”At one detention centre in Phang Nga near Phuket, 275 Rohingya men are held in crowded conditions, denied access to their families. Some have been treated for illnesses including malaria, chickenpox and tuberculosis.
One detainee whispered through the bars to a visiting AFP journalist that the men hoped to go to America or Malaysia.
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.
In Myanmar, more than 100,000 people have been displaced by the Rakhine clashes, which have overshadowed a series of widely praised political reforms by a nominally civilian government which took office in early 2011.
The government says about 180 people have been killed, but activists fear the real death toll is much higher.
Myanmar’s population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya – described by the UN as one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet – face travel restrictions, forced labour 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 the UNHCR has already registered almost 25,000 Rohingya, although community leaders estimate actual number could be double that.
Malaysia largely turns a blind eye, allowing them into the country but denying them any sort of legal status that would allow access to healthcare, education, jobs, and other services, activists say.
(AFP, 25th February 2013)
Let us pray that Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, National League for Democracy, will be brave enough to deal with this grave situation.