More than 110 Rohingya have been sentenced to prison by a military-backed court in Myanmar for attempting to escape refugee camps without the proper paperwork.
The group, which include 12 children, was arrested last month on the shores of the Ayeyarwady region as they waited for two motorboats they hoped would facilitate the start of their journey to Malaysia.
Sentences for the group ranged from two to five years, depending on whether they left camps in Bangladesh or Rakhine. The children were sent to “training schools”.
Local media reports suggest that since December 2021, some 1,800 Rohingya, including children, have been arrested as they attempt to flee camps.
“The charges against them for travelling without documentation stem from the junta’s own refusal to recognise Rohingya as citizens,” said Daniel Sullivan from Refugees International. The Muslim minority group is not legally recognised under Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law. This limits their access to basic services and freedom of movement.
“The Myanmar junta’s latest jailing of Rohingya is a reminder to the world that the architects of the Rohingya genocide remain in power in Myanmar,” Sullivan said.
In 2017, close to 750,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh in an attempt to escape the military’s brutal persecution that is currently subject to a genocide investigation by the UN’s international court of justice. About 600,000 Rohingya remain in Myanmar’s Rakhine state where 142,000 are confined to closed camps.
Since military forces seized control of Myanmar in a coup in 2021, Aung Kyaw Moe, a human rights adviser to Myanmar’s government-in-exile, the National Unity Government, said treatment of the Rohingya had worsened. “There are additional restrictions imposed with local orders from freedom movement within the township [and] access to humanitarian assistance is heavily affecting the survival of remaining Rohingya in Rakhine,” he said.
The imprisonment of those under age, Kyaw Moe said, was a clear violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. “The international community must take more concrete actions to stop the atrocities, particularly Asean countries like Indonesia and Malaysia which are heavily impacted by the attempted departure of the Rohingya.”
In Bangladesh, the levels of violence, sexual assault and harassment inside the camps are forcing people to flee, said Mohammed, a Rohingya refugee living in a Bangladesh camp, who wished to use only his first name for safety reasons. Kidnappings, killings, trafficking and drugs are reported as commonplace.
Over the past month, three boats carrying more than 150 Rohingya have reached Indonesian shores but the whereabouts of another vessel carrying more than 180 people remain unknown.
Despite knowing the dangers of a journey by sea and the potential for imprisonment, many opt to make the journey, Mohammed said. “Rohingya think that the prison will be more safe for them.”