The claim is made by Chris Lewa, whose Arakan Project tracks the movement of Rohingya as they have fled persecution over the past three years, cramming into primitive boats as part of a lucrative smuggling trade. As many as one in 10 of all Rohingya in Burma have fled by boat, making a dangerous voyage with human smugglers who have left them trapped at sea for weeks or forced them into secret jungle camps.
“At least 100,000 Rohingya have left … which is about 10% of the Rohingya population,” she told the Guardian by phone.
The government of Burma does not recognise the roughly 1.1 million Muslim Rohingya as citizens, creating a stateless people. In 2012, deadly clashes with Buddhists in the western state of Rakhine caused 140,000 Rohingya to flee their homes.
Lewa’s organisation relies on a network of local sources in Burma and Bangladesh, which borders Rakhine, who discreetly count migrant numbers at the point of embarkation. From there Rohingya hope to reach Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.
Rights groups accuse Burmese authorities of ethnic cleansing, systematically forcing Rohingya Muslims from the country through violence and persecution, a charge the government denies and says is “one-sided”.
“Our very rough estimate is that some 2,000 people could still be stranded on smugglers’ boats.”
“The figures give an idea of the situation after three years,” Lewa said, adding that her organisation’s numbers are conservative as there are several other smuggler ports in Burma that are not being monitored. She said Rohingya using land routes are also not counted.
“This does not cover all forced migration of Rohingya,” she said.
Eight five percent of those who have left are young men, Lewa said. This has meant the cost of a dowry for women in Rakhine has soared. Families are now sending their daughters on boats to Malaysia to get married, she said, further compounding the human smuggling tragedy.
Crackdown on smuggling
A Thai crackdown on illegal detention camps where Rohingya are held along its border with Malaysia in May shook the trade, making it too risky for people smugglers to dock. Smugglers abandoned boats full of migrants in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, leaving Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants thirsty and exposed.
Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian authorities have also turned away migrants.
Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, said the world body was working to triangulate how many people could still be stuck at sea. “Our very rough estimate is that some 2,000 people could still be stranded on smugglers’ boats,” she told the Guardian by email.
Burma has denied that persecution is the cause of south-east Asia’s migrant crisis. The Rohingya are refused citizenship in Burma and face restrictions on movement, family size and jobs. Authorities consider them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many living in ethnically diverse Burma for generations.
The country has said that it is cracking down on smuggling. The state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar reported on Monday that Burmese police had arrested 93 people for human trafficking offences this year, but said no arrests were made in Rakhine state, from where the Rohingya have been fleeing.
“There have been no reports of human trafficking cases in … Rakhine state this year,” the newspaper said.
The persecution of the Rohingya has stalled Burma’s attempts to open to the world after nearly 50 years of military rule.
US president Barack Obama has made a personal effort to promote Burma’s transition to democracy, travelling there twice in the past three years.
“I think one of the most important things is to put an end to discrimination against people because of what they look like or what their faith is. And the Rohingya have been discriminated against. And that’s part of the reason they’re fleeing,” he said this month.
The issue of the Rohingya is sensitive in Burma, and anti-Rohingya rallies have taken place in the capital this year. Even Burma’s opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has not spoken out against her country’s treatment of the minority group.