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Caught in tussle between Myanmar and B'desh, migrants wait in limbo

With Myanmar and Bangladesh refusing to take responsibility for the migrants found at sea, the fate of the people at the relief camps remains uncertain.

world Updated: Jun 07, 2015 00:52 IST

Unwanted by Bangladesh and unwelcome in Myanmar, hundreds of stick-thin migrants, found adrift at sea as a transnational trafficking route collapsed, are now living in tents on a frontier scrubland.

After being crammed together on a boat bound to Malaysia for weeks, a treacherous journey many braved to flee persecution or poverty, they are back near to where they began.

Since south-east Asia's migrant crisis erupted over a month ago, 4,500 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have been washed ashore. The UN estimates that around 2,000 others are still trapped at sea.

Myanmar found the boat of 733 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis, mostly men and a few women and children, abandoned by people-smugglers late last month. They were eventually allowed to disembark in Myanmar's western Rakhine on Wednesday.

Migrants collect rainwater during a heavy rain fall at a temporary refugee camp near Kanyin Chaung jetty, outside Maungdaw township, northern Rakhine state, Myanmar (Reuters Photo)

The would-be migrants were then driven to camps in a remote region near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, where an earlier boatload of 200 men was already being held. They wait in limbo as authorities wrangle over which country they belong to. Neither nation has shown willingness to accept them and rights groups are concerned that some could be pushed to the wrong side of the border.

Perilous journey

The men bathed for the first time in days and received urgent medical treatment at the camp, as Myanmar immigration officials noted down names, ages and addresses of the migrants who are now at the heart of a diplomatic tussle with Bangladesh.

"I want to go back to Bangladesh. I'm praying to God to be able to go back home quickly," said 20-year-old Shophikuu from Chittagong in Bangladesh, who like many others boarded the boat in the hope of earning a better living in Malaysia.

Ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar residing in Malaysia hold placards during a rally over the current Rohingya crisis at a hall in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur (AFP Photo)

Nishok, 24, is also desperate to get back to his family, saying he was forced to leave at gunpoint. "A broker asked me whether I would like to go to Malaysia. When I refused to go, he pointed his gun at me and took me to the boat," he told AFP of the moment he was cornered by traffickers in Cox's Bazar, an impoverished coastal region in Bangladesh where around 300,000 Rohingya refugees eke out a life alongside poor Bangladeshis.

There have been previous reports of migrants being forced to make the dangerous journey south as brokers can earn hefty sums in the lucrative trade by demanding their relatives pay release fees of around $2,000 as well as selling victims on to businesses in Malaysia.

Recalling the hardships of the journey, where migrants were given only one scant meal a day, Nishok spoke of his parents: "I miss my mum and dad so much. I really want to see them."

Cross-border wrangling

The migrant crisis that spiralled after a Thai crackdown on people-smuggling, threw the multi-million dollar industry into disarray and sparked international condemnation. Both Myanmar and Bangladesh are under increasing pressure to take the migrants back and improve living conditions to stop their exodus.

On Saturday afternoon Major Imran Ullah Sarker, a spokesman for Border Guard Bangladesh in Cox's Bazar, told AFP that 150 of the first batch of 200 migrants found off Myanmar had been identified as Bangladeshi and would be repatriated on Monday.

But he would not comment on the nationality of the migrants on the latest boat. Dhaka has been adamant that Bangladesh will only accept its own citizens.

A Rohingya migrant and her child receive a meal at a temporary shelter in Kuala Cangkoi, Lhoksukon, Aceh province, Indonesia (Reuters Photo)

Myanmar authorities have given international groups including the UN refugee agency and Medecins Sans Frontieres access to the camps where they are providing food, water and care to migrants packed in tents, each sheltering around 15 people. But their onward journey remains unclear as the group are assessed to determine their nationalities.

Most of Myanmar's 1.3 million Rohingya have no citizenship and are considered by the government to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Rohingya have fled Rakhine in the tens of thousands since 2012 when deadly communal violence tore through the state where the minority group faces restrictions on everything from employment to family size and travel.

Yet the ordeal of their recent journey has made some long for their restive home in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. "I want to go back to my place and see my children and parents," Mar Moot Toyo, 25, a Rohingya from Rakhine, told AFP before being trucked over to a camp.