A Myanmar government minister is scheduled to visit Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh next week, becoming the first high-ranking official from Naypyidaw to undertake such a trip, a senior Bangladeshi diplomat said Monday.
Win Myat Aye, Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, will visit stateless Rohingya who fled cycles of bloodshed in that country’s Rakhine state, during a three-day trip to Bangladesh starting on April 11, said Tareque Muhammad, the director-general for Southeast Asia at Bangladesh’s foreign affairs ministry.
“The honorable minister Aye is expected to visit Cox’s Bazar on April 12,” Muhammad told BenarNews on Monday. “We have made necessary arrangements for his trip to see the camps in Cox’s Bazar.”
The announcement about the Myanmar official’s visit came as Malaysian authorities said they had stepped up patrols in the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea to intercept a boat believed to be carrying dozens of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
Two ships and four boats were mobilized off Langkawi island, in northwestern Malaysia, after officials received reports that a fishing boat with 56 people had stopped off the west coast of Thailand early Sunday due to bad weather, First Admiral Haji Rozali Mohammad, the maritime director for the northern Malaysian region, said in a statement.
"However, until today there is no detection or signs of the boat's entry," Haji Rozali said.
Based on results of a police investigation, that vessel did not set sail from Bangladesh, according to Afrozul Haque Tutul, an additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar, the southeastern district in Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have been sheltering.
“The people can no longer use any river and sea route to go to Malaysia as we have stopped the movement of boats in the Bangladesh portion of the border river Naf,” Tutul told BenarNews on Monday.
“The sea and river points that the human traffickers used four to five years ago have been closed and these have been under strict vigilance,” he said.
Close to 700,000 Rohingya crossed into Bangladesh since late August 2017 as they fled a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military following attacks by the insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Most of the refugees walked for days, but others undertook a perilous journey by boat in crossing the frontier.
In Bangkok on Monday, human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights urged Thailand and Malaysia to provide protection for Rohingya refugees in accordance with international law and standards.
Thai police said the boat stopped at Lanta island in Krabi province because it had been damaged in a storm. But the boat was sent on its way to Malaysia after it was repaired and supplied with food and fuel, officials told BenarNews.
“This is not a problem that will go away on its own,” Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights, said in a statement. “Governments in this region need to show leadership and follow their legal obligations to protect refugees rather than send them to potential death sentences at sea.”
Fortify Rights said it had documented other boat arrivals of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia and Thailand this year.
In May 2015, human traffickers abandoned boats at sea carrying thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi survivors of trafficking after Thailand and Malaysia reinforced their borders and refused to allow the disembarkation of survivors, resulting in an untold number of deaths, according to Fortify Rights.
“The Thai and Malaysian authorities went so far as to tow boats of refugees out of their territorial waters, leaving them adrift at sea,” the rights group said.
Other visits from Myanmar officials
Minister Aye will become the first Myanmar minister to see the cramped settlements and squalid conditions of the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, although two other ministers had visited Bangladesh since the massive exodus of the stateless Rohingya, Bangladeshi officials said.
Aye is expected to meet Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali and Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, foreign ministry officials told BenarNews.
Kyaw Tint Swe, Myanmar’s union minister in charge of the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s Office, was the first official to visit Dhaka since the Rohingya refugee crisis began last year.
During a joint meeting with the Bangladeshi foreign affairs and home ministers in Dhaka on Oct. 1, Swe expressed his country’s willingness to take back the Rohingya refugees.
Relocating ‘vulnerable’ Rohingya from flood threat
Meanwhile, with monsoon rains expected to hit southeastern Bangladesh soon, the government is scrambling to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees who face the threat of flooding and landslides in Cox’s Bazar to higher ground, Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, chief of the Rohingya section at the ministry of disaster management, told BenarNews on Monday.
In February, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) warned that at least 100,000 Rohingya huddling in squalid and low-lying refugee camps interspersed with rolling hills could be in grave danger from landslides and floods caused by monsoonal rains.
“In line with the UNHCR study on vulnerability of the Rohingya living at the hills in Ukhia, we have identified some 25,000 most vulnerable people facing the threat of landslide, flooding and cyclones,” Chowdhury told BenarNews.
He said about 11,000 refugees had relocated to a newly acquired 123 acres of land adjacent to the camps. At least 6,000 more will be relocated this week, he said, adding that the resettlement for 25,000 was scheduled to be completed by mid-April.
Hata Wahari in Kuala Lumpur and Maryam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand contributed to this report.