YANGON: More than 700 migrants found crammed into a fishing boat by Myanmar’s navy will be taken to the country’s troubled Rakhine state, a local official said Saturday, adding all those on board were from Bangladesh.
A total of 727 people, including 74 women and 45 children, were discovered in the hull of a vessel on Friday morning in the Irrawaddy delta region with state media reporting that 50 passengers had perished before they were rescued.
It is the latest boat to have been discovered as the region battles a migrant crisis that has erupted since the start of May, leaving around 3,500 people on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesia soil and an estimated 2,500 more stranded at sea.
The majority of those fleeing to the three countries are persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state or people escaping poverty in neighboring Bangladesh.
A local official said the group discovered Friday had been taken to Thamee Hla Island in the Irrawaddy delta region by the navy, ahead of their transfer to Rakhine.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic group and officials routinely refer to them as “Bengalis” from across the border.
“They will be taken to Rakhine State near Bangladesh tomorrow or the day after,” Myo Win, a local official from Haigyi Island, which is close to where the navy towed the boat on Saturday, told AFP.
“As these people came from Bangladesh, we will take them back to Rakhine State because it’s close (to the border),” he added, referring to the western state.
Earlier this month Myanmar’s navy found more than 200 bare-chested men in the hull of a wooden, Thai-registered fishing vessel.
Myanmar insisted all but eight of those found on that boat were Bangladeshi nationals and vowed to deport them there.
The discovery of the latest vessel looks set to deepen a tug of war between Bangladesh and Myanmar over who is responsible for migrants discovered in the Bay of Bengal.
Myanmar has been keen to portray those leaving its shores as Bangladeshi economic migrants and has rejected widespread criticism that the Rohingya’s dire conditions are one of the root causes of the current exodus.
Bangladesh has said it will not take back any migrants who trace their origin to Myanmar.
Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya are heavily persecuted and are one of the world’s largest stateless populations.
They have long faced restrictions on movement, jobs and family size while a surge of violence in 2012 between the community and the Buddhist majority in Rakhine brought their plight to the fore.
Tens of thousands have fled via perilous boat journeys organized by people-smugglers to Southeast Asia.
Malaysia is a favorite destination. Migrants often travel to Thailand by boat, then overland to northern Malaysia.
But a Thai crackdown on the lucrative regional smuggling trade in early May left thousands of desperate migrants stranded on land and sea after gangmasters abandoned them.
Myanmar state media reported that the 700-plus recently discovered migrants were originally on board three vessels that had tried to go to Thailand but turned back after the crackdown.
They were herded onto a single vessel after the Thai people smuggling team who ran the operation abandoned them.
“About 50 people died on the way,” the Myanmar News Agency reported.
Another state media publication, the Global New Light of Myanmar, reported Saturday that a Thai man whom allegedly owned the first boat with 200 migrants on board had been arrested in Yangon.
“He was said to have contacted human trafficking gangs in Bangladesh and trafficked people into Thailand and Malaysia,” the report said.
The report did not say what charges the man, who was apprehended Friday morning, would face.