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Rohingyas:Trapped between Devil and Deep Sea

By Zubair Ahmed, Port Blair

Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lies in Andaman Sea 1200 kms away from mainland India, and around 500 kms from Thailand. Its the route the Rohingya migrants take from Sittwe and Chittagaon in Bangladesh to cross over to Malaysia or Indonesia looking for escape from persecution of Burmese Junta and the hellhole in Bangladesh border.

The route of dead wooden boats which carry them to their dream destination lies east of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Sometimes, the wind bring them to some uninhabited Islands, or sometimes they are spotted by the Coast Guard or Navy and rescued. The Islands had been receiving them since 2008.

As the Islands and the vast marine economic zone around is prone to poaching by Burmese and Thai fishermen or poachers, any boat found in the Andaman Sea in the territorial waters are viewed suspiciously and subjected to joint interrogation by local, central and defence intelligence. The Rohingyas too were initially looked upon as economic poachers trying to migrate to the Islands. They could not comprehend the human right issue of monumental proportion and would treat it as stray incidents of desperate people drifting in with the trade winds.

Since December 2008, about 702 boat people with Bangladesh-Myanmar nationality were rescued from various parts of the Islands. Those rescued were lodged in an open jail, known as Distress Camp, where they were provided all facilities. Though the process of repatriation was very slow, the Andaman and Nicobar Administration took all pain to get in touch with the Bangladesh and Myanmar diplomatic channels and kept repatriating them in batches. As of now, there are no Rohingyas in Andaman Islands. Sources informed that all of them were repatriated to their respective countries as per identification documents available with them.

Now, when the Rohingya crisis is at the fore once again, as per official sources, no boats drifted or were found in the waters under Indian control. The boats carrying Rohingyas are stranded near Malacca Straits, close to Indonesia. Intelligence sources informed that Coast Guard and Navy ships are on standby and Dornier aircrafts are conducting aerial surveys looking for boatpeople in and around Andaman Islands. Its learnt that they have been instructed to take a lenient view and extend humanitarian help if they reach the Island shores.

The case was very different when on 8th Jan 2009, 61 persons in an incapacitated wooden boat reached the shores of Twin Islands. The Andaman and Nicobar Administration had no clue about the intentions of these group, found floating in wooden boats in famished and emaciated condition. However, they were all rescued and brought to Port Blair, capital of the Islands group, where they were provided medical help.

"In 2005-07, many Rohingyas had trespassed Thailand to enter Malaysia. Although they were detained by Thai authorities for 10-15 days, as soon as their relatives in Malaysia intervened and paid an amount of 3000 Malaysian Ringgit, they were released. In Malaysia, the government accepted them and would provide them Refugee Card for labourers," said Mohd Zameer, one of the boatpeople who reached the Islands.

Mohammed Zameer, 23 years, born in Arakan has six members in his family. Faced with desperation and pain in managing a family in a hostile country, where its own citizens are persecuted by the Myanmar government, he crossed to Bothi Gaon in Bangladesh, just 20 kms away. One of the 2 lakh state-less and worst discriminated Rohingyas and Arakanese who had crossed the border looking for a safe haven from the clutches of Myanmar, he too dreamed of a better world. The border towns of Myanmar-Bangladesh are home to many such unfortunate souls. However life was not that easy in Bangladesh. He remained 8 months in Chittagong and thought of moving to Malaysia.

When he heard that Captain Rafeeque, would take him to Malaysia for an amount of 15-20 thousand takas, he too joined the 102 member group. Rafeeque, known as Captain promised them a safe landing in Malaysia. It took about 8 days to reach Phuket on their way, where they were intercepted by Thai Navy. They could see around 120 such Arakanese/Bangladeshi economic migrants already detained by the Thai Navy.

In 2009, the Thai authorities had picked Red Sand Island for 'processing' the Rohingyas before pushing them into the sea. They were subjected to inhuman torture and humiliation in the process. They were detained on the beach with gun-trotting guards abusing and torturing them. About 413 of these boat people were loaded into a dead engineless incapacitated wooden boat and towed deep into the sea for 24 hours and left to drift. Two bags of boiled rice and two jars of water were provided on each boat. There was no provision to cook the rice. They soaked it in water and chewed raw. But that too did not last more than two days. 412 persons tossed in a boat with no space to even move, they drifted in the sea for more than 15 days and they even lost the count of days after a certain period. Hunger and thirst drove them mad. Everyday, they were throwing dead bodies into the sea. When after a long period, the boat drifted towards Little Andaman Islands, where they were spotted and rescued by the A&N police and ANC, out of 413, only 107 survived.

Mukhtar (35) belonged to a group of 61 persons, which landed in Twin Islands on 08 Jan 2009. Their boat had developed an engine snag, and drifting in open sea for about eight days.

In another incident, about 150 persons landed near Tillangchaung Island on 10 Jan 2009.  Ghulam Kadir (25) says that they were about 110 and 41 more people were tossed into an incapacitated boat by Thai authorities and pushed into the sea.

One more incapacitated boat carrying 133 Rohingyas reached Pillow Millow village in Great Nicobar on 15th January 2009. The boat caught the attention of the residents of the village that had just 5-6 families living there after tsunami devastated it in 2004. Rest of the 41 families of the village were still living in temporary shelters in Campbell Bay, the southernmost tip of India, just 150 kms away from Indonesia.

However, the villagers took out their boats and with great difficulties towed the drifting boat to the village in a very rough weather. The Rohingyas were famished and dehydrated as was the case with earlier arrivals in the Islands. There was not much in the village to offer over 130 hungry people, said Paul Jura, the tribal chief of the village from Campbell Bay. However, the villagers offered them banana and whatever else they could. The police in Campbell Bay was alerted though even that in itself was a monumental task.

The issue is very serious for those of Burmese origin. There were about 107 of them, out of which 38 of them were rescued in 2008. Another group of 37 were found on Barren Island in December 2011. 34 more of Burmese origin was rescued near Goal Tikrey, Kalighat on 23 December 2011.

Earlier, it was just men who took the risk of sailing on wooden boats with minimal communication or ration, but a couple of years back, even women and children too accompanied them in this dangerous journey, who were rescued by Coast Guard. However all of them have been repatriated.

"Even Rohingyas living legally on Phuket have been refused passports by the ''new'' Burmese government. Those who do land in Thailand are ''helped on'' to Malaysia or into the arms of brokers," said Alan Morison, Editor, Phuketwan.

Myanmar is not going to take them back as they are outcasts there and Bangladesh would do the same as they are Rohingyas. It would be inhumane to keep them in detention. Conferring Refugee status to them by the littoral countries is still being debated.