70 Rohingyas languish in detention here with nowhere to go

Monday, February 25, 2013
Some of the Rohingya people at the Mirihana detention centre.
Skanda Gunasekara
Sunday Times
February 25, 2013
A severely persecuted minority in Myanmar which fears repatriation while no other country wants them
The Government is burdened with the task of feeding and clothing 70 Rohingya people whom no country wants to accept as their citizens. The 68 men and two boys aged 12 and 14 years are from the State of “Rohang” in Myanmar, and are commonly referred to as Rohingya Muslims. The United Nations (UN) says they are one of the most persecuted minority people in Myanmar, and many have fled across the border to either Bangladesh or Thailand. The Sino-Tibetans are the majority population in Myanmar.
The first batch of 37 Rohingya people have remained in the Mirihana Detention Centre since February 2, Controller General of Immigration and Emigration told the Sunday Times. A further batch of 33 was lodged there a week ago, following their rescue from the high seas, he said. The Centre comes under his purview.
These “people with nowhere to go” are clothed and fed at State expense, until relevant State agencies work to resolve their citizenship status. An External Affairs Ministry (EAM) source who spoke on grounds of anonymity, said they had raised issue with the Myanmar embassy in Colombo about the status of the 70 persons. “We have had no response to our first inquiry about the 37 or the 33 who were rescued thereafter,” he said. Hence, the EAM brought the matter to the attention of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Other diplomats in Colombo said the move was not surprising, as the Yangon government did not recognise the Rohingyas.
UNHCR’s acting resident representative in Colombo, Jenniger Pagonis told the Sunday Times, “we have now sought permission to interview those in detention. This is to determine whether they are indeed Myanmar nationals. However, we have learnt from other accounts, that they do not wish to return to their country.”
The saga of the 33 “persons with nowhere to go” came after the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) received a radio signal that a fishing craft had rescued a fisherman from a boat in distress. SLN spokesman P.K. Warnakulasuriya said “We immediately dispatched SLNS Sagara, and rescued 32 persons from the high seas, 250 nautical miles off Sri Lanka’s east coast, returning to Galle after a nine-and-half-hour voyage.” The survivors were then handed over to the Police.
The Police found they had a communications problem, as none of them spoke English. Helping out was the Ven. Maligawila Assagi Thera of the Gnanobasa Temple at Lower Dickson Road, Galle, acting as interpreter, through whom the Police were able to piece together a story with several gaps.
Only a few among the 33 spoke a little Burmese. They told Ven. Assagi that their boat began to drift after the engines failed. They had food stocks only for a month, but they had drifted for a further five weeks. Whenever someone died, they had thrown the body overboard. The count was 98 including two organisers of the voyage. While some claimed they were headed for Malaysia, it was later established that their destination was Australia.
Ven Assagi Thera told the Sunday Times, “the survivors are all labourers with Grade 4 education at most. After leaving Myanmar, they claimed they were spotted by the Thai Navy, forcing them to change course. They had planned to complete their voyage in 20 to 25 days.”
Galle Magistrate U.S. Kalansuriya ordered the 17 survivors sent to the Detention Centre, when produced by the police. “Our role was over when we sent them to the Centre,” Police spokesman Senior Superintendent Prashantha Jayakody said. On February 2, the SLN rescued another 138 persons from the high seas, of who, 37 were Rohingyas.
(Additional reporting by D.G.Sugathapala)

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