YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar said on Tuesday it had reached an agreement with neighboring Bangladesh to repatriate 200 Bangladeshis rescued from a boat off the Myanmar coast last week.
A migrant crisis has flared up in Southeast Asia as Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis trying to escape poverty at home become prey to human traffickers.
After Thailand cracked down on the practice, traffickers began abandoning overloaded boats on the open sea rather than trying to smuggle travelers through Thailand. Some 3,500 are stranded, the United Nations refugee agency has said.
Monday’s agreement followed talks involving Bangladesh’s foreign ministry, Myanmar’s ambassador to Bangladesh, and Bangladesh officials in Myanmar, the state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.
Myanmar has said there were 200 Bangladeshis among the 208 men aboard the vessel rescued on Friday by its navy off the coast of western Rakhine State, describing the rest as “Bengalis” from Rakhine.
Myanmar’s government does not recognize the term Rohingya and instead uses the term “Bengali”, implying the group are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya, an ethnic minority concentrated in its west, are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions. Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with Buddhists in 2012.
Southern Thailand and northern Malaysia have been a major route for smugglers and traffickers bringing people to Southeast Asia by boat from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Many say they are fleeing persecution and looking for better lives abroad.
The men aboard the ship are from Bangladesh’s coastal resort of Cox’s Bazar, the port city of Chittagong and the capital, Dhaka, the newspaper said.
It ran interviews with four of the men, who said they had been tricked, or forced, into boarding the boat.
“I visited Cox’s Bazar beach,” the paper quoted a man, identified as Mohamod Mufa Zalhusin, as saying.
“Two guys forcibly took me to a boat,” he added. “The guys on the boat told me they had bought me. They headed to Thailand. Later we were asked for a ransom of 50,000 taka to return to Bangladesh, as security was tight on the Thai coast.”
The sum demanded is equivalent to $643.
Myanmar blames the current ‘boat people’ crisis on human trafficking and smuggling networks and has rejected claims that its policies towards the Rohingya have led them to flee.
Washington and the United Nations have urged Myanmar to fight discrimination and violence against ethnic Rohingya Muslims, saying its policy toward them is a root cause of mass migration behind the crisis.
Editing by Clarence Fernandez