BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thousands of Rohingya boat people who have left Myanmar in the past month have yet to reach their destinations, say relatives and an advocacy group for the persecuted minority, raising fears their boats have been prevented from reaching shore.
About 12,000 Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim people, have left the western Myanmar state of Rakhine since Oct 15, said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which plots migration across the Bay of Bengal.
Another 4,000 boat people, both Rohingya and Bangladeshis, left neighbouring Bangladesh during the same period, said Lewa.
The boat people are headed for Malaysia, but most transit through Thailand, where smugglers and traffickers hold them at jungle camps near the Malaysian border until relatives pay ransoms to secure their release.
About 460 boat people were found and detained by the Thai authorities in November, but thousands more have not made landfall or contacted relatives after what is usually a five-day voyage.
“Where are they?” said Lewa. “We have become very concerned.”
The last time so many boat people went missing was in 2008, said Lewa. Hundreds of Rohingya, many of them starving and dehydrated, were later rescued from Indonesian and Indian waters, while others were feared lost at sea.
Thailand’s prime minister later said there were “some instances” in which Rohingya boats had been pushed out to sea to “let these people drift to other shores”, but that they had adequate food and water.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were displaced in 2012 after deadly clashes with Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
Many Rohingya now live in squalid camps with little or no access to jobs, healthcare or education.
Prejudice against the minority group is widespread in Myanmar, which says they have no right to citizenship, despite having lived in the area for generations.