Myanmar escorting boatload of 700 migrants to Rakhine state

Agence France-Presse
Rohingya migrants sit in a boat off the coast near the city of Geulumpang in Indonesia's East Aceh district of Aceh province before being rescued on May 20, 2015.

Myanmar's navy on Tuesday escorted a boatload of more than 700 migrants towards its western state of Rakhine, authorities said, five days after it was found adrift in the Bay of Bengal.

Around 3,500 migrants, mainly Rohingya from Myanmar or economic migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, have come ashore in Southeast Asia in recent weeks in an ongoing migrant crisis.

Some 2,500 more are believed still trapped at sea, heaping pressure on both countries to take back the migrants and improve living conditions to stem the outflow.

Soon after the boat was found on Friday Myanmar authorities said the 727 passengers onboard were "Bengalis" and threatened to send them across the border.

Myanmar describes its persecuted Rohingya Muslim community living in the western state of Rakhine and numbering around 1.3 million as "Bengalis." Most have no citizenship and are considered to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

On Tuesday officials in both Myanmar and Bangladesh said the packed boat was on its way to Rakhine — a frequent upstream departure point for many Rohingya journeys south.

"It's heading to Rakhine. We heard they were being taken to Maungdaw by the navy but we can't confirm that," an unnamed official in Maungdaw, a town in the state, said.

Bangladesh's Border Guard also said it had been told by its neighbor that the passengers would be taken to Maungdaw.

It is unclear when the boat was due to arrive or what would happen to the passengers once they reached the town, which is separated from Bangladesh by a wide river.

But in a warning to Myanmar, a coast guard official, Captain Shahidul Islam, said Bangladesh would block any attempt to push them across the frontier.

"This ship with migrants is being shifted to Maungdaw through Myanmar waters," he said.

"We have intensified patrols in our territory so that they cannot push back their citizens to Bangladesh territory."

The Rohingya flee Rakhine in droves each year to escape poverty and persecution in a region where their movements are controlled and they lack access to jobs or basic services.

The exodus increased dramatically after 2012 when scores were killed in communal bloodletting involving Buddhist nationalists in the state.

Tens of thousands have languished in displacement camps in Rakhine since the violence.

An estimated 300,000 more scratch a living in the poor coastal area of neighboring Bangladesh, but only around a tenth of them are officially recognized as refugees.

The status of the Rohingya is an incendiary issue in Myanmar as Buddhist nationalism surges.

But the country has faced intensifying pressure from the international community to extend citizenship rights to them.

Myanmar has been keen to portray those leaving its shores as Bangladeshi economic migrants and rejects widespread criticism that its treatment of the Rohingya is one of the root causes of the exodus.