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Rohingya Migrants Left Out At Sea, No Country Will Allow Them Ashore


Let's go next to Southeast Asia to an ongoing drama at sea. Relief agencies estimate about 8,000 people are stranded on the water in decrepit vessels. Most came from Myanmar, also known as Burma, which they fled as members of a Muslim minority group. That group is called the Rohingya, sometimes pronounced Ro-hinge-a (ph). They are in the waters off the coast of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Their location is significant because none of those three countries is allowing them to make landfall. Matthew Smith is the executive director of the human rights group Fortify Rights. He's on the phone from Thailand where he's been trying to deliver help to the people at sea. Welcome to the program, sir.

MATTHEW SMITH: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: What's your best information about what's happening out there on the water?

SMITH: Well, right now we there know there are several boats of Rohingya, some Bangladeshis as well, that are asylum-seekers, survivors of human trafficking, and they're stranded at sea. They lack food. They lack water. They lack medicine. So we know people are dying at sea, and right now the response regionally has been quite appalling.

INSKEEP: How do you know what you know about them?

SMITH: Well, we've been documenting the plight of the Rohingya for several years now. In the last year, we've talked to over 130 survivors of torture, rape, other abuses that are being perpetrated against them at sea, but also in some cases, when they find themselves in human trafficking camps on shore.

INSKEEP: Now, you've said an interesting thing. When you said in the last year, you're underlining that this is not a flow of people that has just begun.

SMITH: Actually no, this has been going on for a very, very long time. The Rohingya have faced systematic persecution in Myanmar for decades, in fact. In 2012, there was state-sanctioned violence against the Rohingya. So villages were burned down. Rohingya were shot at and killed, essentially driven out of their homes. And this is part of the reason why we're seeing some many take to the seas now.

INSKEEP: Is this a situation where they are seen as a threat to the state?

SMITH: No, actually. I mean, the Rohingya are one of the poorest communities in Southeast Asia. Their citizenship is denied in Myanmar. So they're a stateless population, and they have been since the early 1980s when Myanmar enacted a law that stripped them of citizenship. Everywhere they go, the Rohingya face abuse - in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and elsewhere. They have no home.

INSKEEP: Why do the three countries that you just mentioned refuse to let them in?

SMITH: You know, what they're saying publicly is that they don't want to encourage an enormous number of Rohingya fleeing to their country. Right now Thailand is purporting to crack down on human trafficking, and the Rohingya have been trafficked through Thailand for the last couple years. We've documented how Thai authorities have actually been complicit in the trafficking, in the buying and selling of thousands of human beings. So it's a problematic situation in that regard.

INSKEEP: Is there any safe haven for them?

SMITH: Well, some have made landfall in Indonesia and Malaysia. At least over 100,000 Rohingya are in Malaysia right now, over 500,000 in Bangladesh. The U.S. has resettled a few Rohingya, but generally speaking, they have no safe haven.

INSKEEP: Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights. Thanks very much.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.