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After Left Stranded At Sea, What Happened To The Rohingya Migrants?


Last year, tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled persecution in their home country of Myanmar, stripped of their citizenship and denied many rights. The U.N. calls them one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world. Their plight became world news when smugglers' boats full of Rohingya people were abandoned at sea and countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand were refusing to take them in. As the refugee crisis in the Middle East worsened, attention shifted away from the Rohingya. So to find out what happened, we called up Jennifer Rigby. She's a freelance journalist based in Yangon. And I started by asking her what happened to those Rohingya on those boats.

JENNIFER RIGBY: After quite a lot of international pressure and some really horrific stories about people in a - literally stranded on boats floating in the sea, most of the countries in the surrounding area in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia agreed to take in reasonable numbers of the refugees into their countries. But in some countries, they were then put in refugee camps. In other countries, they've managed to find some work, but recent reports about how some of the refugee camps in Indonesia, in particular - the U.N. has found that some of the refugees have just disappeared. They think they're still trying to reach Malaysia, still trying to find somewhere they can work and have a proper life.

CORNISH: And of course, things have not really changed for the Rohingya in Myanmar where, as we mentioned, they are stripped of citizenship. What are the other restrictions on this group?

RIGBY: There's kind of two things going on for the Rohingya who are left in Myanmar. There's about a million Rohingya altogether in the country. And for many of them, they face a kind of day-to-day oppression from the authorities. So they were unable to vote in the election. They struggle to access healthcare, education, things like that. They can't travel freely. But then there's about 140,000 of them who were forcibly moved into refugee camps, IDP camps and have been there since 2012 when there was violence between the communities in the area or in Rakhine where they're based. And they really feel like open-air prison camps. You know, the people in them can't leave. They're strapped in by checkpoints. To get in, you have to go through checkpoints. And you know, if you're inside, you can't get out, and that's why the checkpoints are there.

CORNISH: This stems from tensions between the Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhist majority, but has there been any hope with this election that things would change for the Rohingya?

RIGBY: Yeah, it's kind of sad because a lot of people did hope there would be some kind of change for the Rohingya. And as a result of the election, you know, Aung San Suu Kyi is a real emblem of hope and democracy not just in Myanmar but across the world. And I think a lot of people really hope something would change, but actually it hasn't so far. On the one hand, it's hard to blame Aung San Suu Kyi who hasn't formed a government yet because of the way the constitution works in Myanmar. But on the other hand after she won the election, one of her spokesman said they have other priorities rather than the Rohingya in the country. So it doesn't seem like it's going to be a situation she's going to try and fix anytime soon.

CORNISH: Finally, are there any concerns that there could be another wave of Rohingya trying to escape by sea?

RIGBY: I think it's a difficult question in a way because the situation hasn't improved. Their lives are still really desperate, and they've seen what happened, you know, earlier this year. They've heard that the reports - or rather not heard, you know, from their family members or their friends who didn't make it. And at the same time, they also are aware that now it's much harder to get to these other countries. So after the boat crisis earlier this year, a lot of the other neighboring countries, like Thailand, have effectively closed their borders to these boat people and - as they were called.

So, you know, even if people do get on the boats, there's a sense that they won't be able to land them anywhere, and that means as well that the smuggler gangs who basically were facilitating the journeys aren't very willing to do it either because they won't get their money.

CORNISH: That's Jennifer Rigby in Yangon, Myanmar. Thank you so much for your reporting.

RIGBY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.