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Over the last three weeks, more than 3,000 refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh have arrived on Southeast Asia's beaches, stranded after smugglers abandoned their rickety boats on the way to Malaysia. The United Nations estimates that about 3,500 more refugees are currently adrift in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, either lost at sea or blocked by Malaysian, Thai and Indonesian authorities from reaching land.
Those who survived the journey told reporters about months spent cramped aboard wooden fishing boats, often lacking food, clean water and medicine. Passengers on some of the ships recounted being forced to turn around after being intercepted by coast guards despite inhumane conditions aboard.
Many of the refugees undertaking the journey to Malaysia are Rohingyas from Myanmar, a group facing so much discrimination and persecution that its members are willing to undertake the treacherous trip. Tomás Ojea Quintana, a former UN special rapporteur on human rights for Myanmar, even said that the systematic violence against the group may amount to crimes against humanity.
Migrants sit on their boat as they wait to be rescued by Acehnese fishermen on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia, Wednesday, May 20, 2015. (AP Photo/S. Yulinnas)
A majority of Rohingya Muslims live in Rakhine, a Buddhist majority state in western Myanmar. The group says its members descend from Arab traders and have lived in the area for hundreds of years. Many people in Myanmar, however, including prominent political and religious leaders, consider the Rohingyas Bengalis who migrated to Myanmar illegally and have no right to live in the country.
In 1982, Myanmar approved a law that officially restricted citizenship to members of ethnic groups it said had settled in modern-day Myanmar prior to 1823. The Rohingya were not considered one of those groups and its members effectively became stateless.
The lack of citizenship deprives Rohingyas of basic rights, including access to education, freedom of movement, land rights, the protection of their property and the right to marry freely.
In this June 26, 2014, photo, Rohingya man carries vegetables in the rain at The Chaung village, north of Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Tensions between Buddhists and Royingya Muslims in Rakhine state have lingered for decades but intensified in recent years, partly fueled by the hate-mongering rhetoric of extremist Buddhist monks. The International Crisis Group explains that decades of discontent among Rakhine's Buddhists over discrimination by the government, economic marginalization and human rights abuses have morphed into a general anger and fear toward the state's Muslim communities -- particularly Rohingyas. As ICG noted in a 2013 report, people's hatred for the Rohingya in Rakhine state stems from "considerable pent-up frustration and anger under years of authoritarianism that are now being directed towards Muslims by a populist political force that cloaks itself in religious respectability and moral authority."
But the anti-Rohingya sentiment transgresses Rakhine state's border and is widespread among Myanmar's Buddhist population. Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, said in 2012 that the “only solution” to the sectarian strife between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine was to expel the Rohingya to other countries or to camps overseen by the United Nations refugee agency. The issue is so sensitive that even Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner from Myanmar, has failed to speak out about it.
In this June 26, 2014, photo, a Rohingya child covers his head and face with a cloth as he stands in the foreground of makeshift tents at Dar Paing refugee camp in north of Sittwe, Rakhine state, Myanmar.(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
The tensions between Buddhists and Rohingyas led to major violence in 2012 and 2013, when clashes left hundreds dead and forced 140,000 Royingya people to flee their homes for temporary refugee camps outside the state capital, Sittwe.
The camps are known for horrible conditions; they lack adequate housing, sanitary provisions, access to food, education and health care. Aid organizations have been refused access to the sites several times in the past years. The Associated Press described the living situation as "apartheid-like."
“I witnessed a level of human suffering in the IDP camps that I have personally never seen before ... appalling conditions .... wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation,” UN Assistant General-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-hwa Kang said after visiting the camps in 2014.
“No one should have to live in the conditions that we see in Nget Chaung,” Pierre Peron, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar, concluded after visiting that particular site in October 2014.
For the hundreds of thousands living outside the camps, conditions are similarly dire. Many are barred from leaving their villages. Unable to pursue education or employment, the future looks bleak.
In this June 26, 2014, photo, Rohingya children walk to school at The Chaung village school, north of Sittwe, Rakhine State, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Consequently, many Rohingyas are desperate to leave the country. About 300,000 members of the group are believed to have crossed into neighboring Bangladesh. But there, too, survival is a struggle.
Refugees International's Sarnata Reynolds explained that Bangladesh hopes that by keeping life difficult for the refugees, "at some point they will just give up and leave." Only 30,000 Rohingyas are officially registered in the country as refugees and live in UN-supported camps, Reynolds said. The others live in constant fear of deportation, often relying on the registered refugees for essential supplies.
The Rohingyas thus have become an easy prey for smugglers trying to fill boats trafficking migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh to countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Smugglers typically charge about $2,000 per journey to Malaysia, the AP notes -- forcing the migrants to sell everything they have. Some traffickers have been accused of holding refugees in detention camps in Thailand until families pay a ransom to secure their release. Faced with a recent crackdown on smuggling networks by Thai authorities, traffickers often abandon their ships before reaching land in order to avoid detection.
As the number of refugees reaching South Asia's shores rose and the reports about abandoned migrant boats steadily increased, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand initially refused to shelter new migrants and even pushed back boats entering their waters.
However, faced with a growing global outcry, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed at a summit on Wednesday to temporarily shelter 7,000 migrants. While Myanmar refused to participate in Wednesday's meeting -- arguing it would not accept blame for the crisis -- it reversed course later in the week and announced it would participate in an emergency meeting set to be held in Thailand next week.
On Friday, Malaysia launched the first search-and-rescue mission for migrants trapped at sea.
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