Yangon — Scores of Rohingya refugees leaving Bangladeshi camps by boat have accidentally returned to the crisis-hit area of Myanmar they originally fled from, after their vessel broke up on the sea route south.
About 1-million Rohingya have fled Myanmar army crackdowns since 2016 for Bangladesh, where they live in cramped, flood-prone camps now being battered by the seasonal monsoon.
On Monday morning a boat carrying 104 Bangladeshis and Rohingya ran into trouble off the coast of Rakhine state, a Myanmar government spokesman told AFP, eventually breaking apart and forcing the passengers to head for shore.
The vessel was believed to be close to the coast, enabling the refugees to survive. For some it is likely to be an unexpected and unwelcome return to a state they were forced to run from, carrying accounts of atrocities by Myanmar’s army and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
"These Muslim people were going from Bangladesh to Malaysia in a boat owned by a Malaysian man," spokesman Zaw Htay said on Wednesday.
"Some are Bangladesh citizens, the majority are from the camps … people from Bangladesh who fled," he said.
Myanmar denies the Rohingya citizenship and officials do not recognise the term, instead labelling them "Bengalis", short for illegal infiltrators from the neighbouring country.
They were taken to Nga Khu Ya camp in Rakhine’s Muangdaw district, a purpose-built facility meant to process refugees returning under a discredited repatriation deal with Bangladesh. Photographs showed the drenched passengers walking barefoot into Myanmar police trucks with virtually no possessions.
Passengers had paid people smugglers about $235 to ferry them to Malaysia with the promise of another $2,100 once they were able to find work in the Muslim-majority country, Htay said.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi economic migrants are believed to have died at sea in recent years trying to reach Malaysia.
The trafficking route collapsed in 2015, when shallow graves were found at migrant holding camps across the Thai-Malaysian borders. But boats still make the journey south.