MAUNGDAW, Myanmar: Some 150 migrants found adrift in a boat off Myanmar’s coast were transferred under armed guard to neighboring Bangladesh Monday, returning them to a life of grinding poverty many tried to flee months ago.
The transfer of the men across a bridge over the Naf River separating the two countries began late morning, AFP reporters on the scene said.
“I’m happy,” one of the men, who gave his name as Uzzal, told AFP in English. “Four months after, go back to Bangladesh, to the family, very happy.”
In recent years tens of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi economic migrants have fled on boats across the Bay of Bengal in search of better prospects, usually to Malaysia.
The lucrative smuggling and trafficking industry was largely ignored until a Thai crackdown last month upended those routes and led to gangmasters abandoning their victims at sea and on land.
Since then, around 4,500 of them have returned to shore, but the UN estimates around 2,000 are still at sea.
Nearly 1,000 have been taken to Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, after being found by Myanmar’s navy in two boats in the Bay of Bengal.
Neither nation initially showed a willingness to accept them and rights groups are concerned some could be pushed to the wrong side of the border.
Myanmar insists the majority of those discovered recently are Bangladeshis leading to fears it may try to deport unwanted Rohingya Muslims, some 1.3 million of whom live in Rakhine State.
But they now appear to have agreed on the nationality of some of the rescued migrants, who come from a first boatload of more than 200 found in late May.
After accepting 150 people back, a Bangladeshi border official said the complicated process of establishing where the remainder belong was ongoing.
“Only after the verification we can say how many or if any Bangladeshis are among these migrants,” Lieutenant Colonel Khandaker Saiful Alam, head of Bangladesh border guards in Cox’s Bazar district bordering Myanmar, told AFP.
But the migrants have received little sympathy from the country’s prime minister Sheikh Hasina who last month dubbed them “mentally sick” for leaving and tarnishing Bangladesh’s image.
The Cox’s Bazar region is notoriously poor and known for powerful trafficking gangs who had, until recently, operated largely unhindered.
Hours before the group was repatriated Bangladeshi police said a Rohingya man suspected of involvement in people trafficking had been shot dead in a fight with rival gangs in Teknaf, near Myanmar’s border.
Last month, three men accused of being involved in the trade were gunned down by police in the same region.
Inside Myanmar, conditions for migrants allowed to stay are unforgiving.
Impoverished Rakhine state is a tinderbox of tension between its Buddhist majority and the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, many of whom live in displacement camps after deadly unrest erupted there in 2012.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship and face a raft of restrictions, including on their movement, family size and jobs.
Buddhist hardliners there are planning a day of protest on Sunday against local authorities for helping the desperate boat migrants.
The fate of 733 other migrants found on another boat on May 19 has also yet to be decided, with officials from both countries still in the process of verifying their nationalities.
Myanmar has yet to clearly state what the origins of the remaining passengers are or what will happen to migrants who are not deemed to be from Bangladeshi territory.
Rohingya are classified by Myanmar authorities as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many living there for generations.
Bangladesh already hosts tens of thousands of Rohingya in camps, many the victims of previous bouts of sectarian instability across the border.
Authorities have proposed moving them to a nearby island, something Rohingya groups have said will only worsen their plight.
Myanmar has come under increasing pressure from the international community to halt the ongoing persecution of its Rohingya population.
But the authorities have stuck to their line that Rohingya are not fleeing persecution.