One in ten Rohingya have fled persecution and violence Burma

The Muslim minority have faced hardship in Burma, forcing thousands to flee their homes and what rights groups consider ethnic cleansing

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.

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, crammed into primitive boats as part of a lucrative smuggling trade.

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”.

85% 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.

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.

A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR said the world body was working to triangulate how many people could still be stuck at sea, which estimates that some 2,000 are still trapped aboard boats at sea.

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