Desperate Rohingya use plastic rafts to flee Myanmar

SHAH PORIR DWIP, Bangladesh (AFP) – Dozens of Rohingya refugees floated into Bangladesh on Wednesday on a raft fashioned from plastic jerrycans, as the persecuted Muslim minority continue to flee violence in Myanmar in droves, officials said.

Bangladesh border guards spotted the makeshift raft overloaded with more than 50 passengers as it drifted toward the coastal village of Shah Porir Dwip village.

Local border guard commander SM Ariful Islam told AFP the 52 refugees tied plastic jerrycans together to float across the Naf River separating the two countries.

Islam said those fleeing ethnic violence in Myanmar were still desperate enough to make the dangerous crossing, with other daring escapes recorded in recent days.

At least 16 Rohingya refugees were found floating across the same river in a plastic drum sawn in half, local police said.

“A lot of them arrived today on rafts made from plastic jerrycans,” local community policeman Abdul Jabbar told AFP on Tuesday.

“It was a dangerous attempt to cross the Naf on such a flimsy device. It could easily have gone wrong, causing deaths.”

Groups of Rohingya Muslims cross the Naf river at the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, near Palong Khali, Bangladesh. – AP

Many families stuck on the bank were unable to pay the exorbitant fees charged by boatman and were resorting to increasingly desperate measures to escape.

Nur Shahin, who crossed in the half drum, said he could not afford what the boatmen were asking to get his family across the river to safety.

“We thought this was the only way to save our lives,” Shahin told AFP.

An estimated 611,000 people have fled Myanmar since late August, when the military launched a massive crackdown in Rakhine State in response to attacks by Rohingya militants.

Many crossed by land, hiking through mountains and miles of paddy fields to reach Bangladesh, but many also came by river and open sea.

Authorities have cracked down on boat arrivals in recent weeks as border guards alleged that drug traffickers were using the exodus to smuggle methamphetamine pills aboard the craft.

The UN estimates the majority of Rohingya once living in Rakhine State – estimated at around 1 million – had fled a campaign of violence its likened to ethnic cleansing.

“If you do the mathematics, you’ll see the vast majority have actually left, which is a great concern for us,” UNHCR assistant commissioner Volker Turk told AFP at the weekend.