Maungdaw (Myanmar) (AFP) – About 150 migrants found adrift in a boat off Myanmar’s coast were set Monday for transfer to neighbouring Bangladesh, an immigration official said, returning them to homes many tried to flee months ago.
Southeast Asia’s migrant crisis unfurled at the start of May, leaving thousands from Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Rohingya minority trapped at sea.
Since then, around 4,500 of them have returned to shore, but the UN estimates about 2,000 others are still on the water.
Nearly 1,000 have been taken to Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, after being found by Myanmar’s navy in two boats in the Bay of Bengal.
Neither nation initially showed a willingness to accept them and rights groups are concerned some could be pushed to the wrong side of the border.
But they now appear to have agreed on the nationality of some of the rescued migrants, who come from a first boatload of more than 200 found in late May.
“Bangladesh will transfer 150 migrants after a friendly meeting between two countries,” Saw Naing, deputy director of Maungdaw district immigration told AFP.
The group — all men — moved from a holding camp on Monday to a bridge over the Naf River that separates the two countries, according to AFP reporters.
They were given new, clean clothes, making a marked contrast to the conditions they were found in — unwashed, bare-chested and hungry after weeks on an overcrowded boat.
Myanmar initially said all 208 on the first boat they intercepted were from Bangladesh, leading to fears it may try to deport unwanted Rohingya Muslims, 1.3 million of whom live in Rakhine State.
The country has yet to clearly state what the origins of the remaining passengers are or what will happen to migrants who are not deemed to be from Bangladeshi territory.
The fate of 733 other migrants found on another boat on May 19 has also yet to be decided, with officials from both countries still in the process of verifying their nationalities.
Impoverished Rakhine state is a tinderbox of tension between its Buddhist majority and a heavily persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, many of whom live in displacement camps after deadly unrest erupted there in 2012.
Buddhist hardliners there are planning a day of protest on Sunday against local authorities for helping the desperate boat migrants.
Myanmar refuses to recognise the majority of its Rohingya as citizens and places a raft of restrictions on them, such as family size, movements and access to jobs.
In recent years tens of thousands of Rohingya have left, fleeing on often deadly voyages across the Bay of Bengal at the hands of ruthless people-smuggling and trafficking networks.
They have been joined by hundreds of Bangladeshi economic migrants, many from the dirt-poor Cox’s Bazar coastal area adjacent to Rakhine.
The exodus was largely ignored until a crackdown on the people-smuggling trade in Thailand last month caused chaos as gangmasters abandoned their human cargoes on land and sea.
While many migrants were desperate to leave their homes, horror stories have also emerged of kidnap at gunpoint in Bangladesh by traffickers fattening their profits with larger human cargoes.
Myanmar has come under increasing pressure from the international community to halt the ongoing persecution of its Rohingya population.
But the authorities have stuck to their line that Rohingya are not fleeing persecution.
Myanmar insists most of the migrants them are from Bangladesh and has vowed to send them back across the border.
Police in the country have arrested more than 90 people for human trafficking offences this year, media reported Monday, but no cases have been uncovered in Rakhine state from where persecuted Rohingya have fled in droves.