Rohingya refugees weigh people smuggler offers rather than return to Myanmar

Rohingya refugees weigh people smuggler offers rather than return to Myanmar

Rohingya refugees weigh people smuggler offers rather than return to Myanmar

Updated 24 November 2017, 10:45 AEDT

A people smuggler tells the ABC he could organise a voyage in a month and take 90 people plus children.

Rohingya refugees say they would rather "drown at sea" than be sent back to Myanmar.

It comes after the country signed a memorandum of understanding with its neighbour Bangladesh, allowing for the return of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who fled across the border during crackdowns in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state.

At a bus stop in Teknaf, southern Bangladesh, we meet a man wearing a grey polo shirt, sandals and a traditional lungi — a sarong-style dress favoured by many Bengalis.

He is a people smuggler, and he has agreed to discuss a burning question: Could the current Rohingya exodus from Myanmar reignite people smuggling in the region?

Until its disruption in 2015, criminal gangs trafficked Rohingya Muslims and others through the Bay of Bengal and Andaman sea to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and beyond.

The boatman claims he would be able to arrange such a journey within a month, but did not say if he was actively organising such a venture.

"We could take more than 90 people on the boat," he said, explaining it would take him several weeks to purchase a large fishing boat, install a new motor and refit it to carry passengers.

"I say 90 adults not including children."

Repatriation deal sparks fear

The smuggler's claims come as Myanmar announced last night it has struck a deal with Bangladesh to repatriate the refugees — a move that a number of Rohingya have told the ABC would prompt them to instead flee to a third country.

Thailand's military has vowed to push back any boats carrying refugees, but smugglers say they could easily bypass them.

"They will not catch us, because we will take import shipping routes of Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore in deep sea," one said.

The smuggler said the journey from Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, would take approximately two weeks and sailing conditions would be suitable in the next month, before the onset of cyclone season.

The man claims to have trafficked over 100 Rohingya refugees south to Malaysia in 2011.

"I along with two other boatmen have taken people to Malaysia," he said.

"This time [in the last three months] I have brought more than 400 people from Myanmar."

The ABC has not been able to verify the smuggler's claim to have successfully transported people to Malaysia, but intermediaries have confirmed his role in bringing multiple boatloads of refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh since August, when Myanmar's crackdown began.

The smuggler's claims come as multiple Rohingya said they were considering moves to escape the Bangladesh camps in which they're now confined.

"People will flee by boats if they can," 54-year-old Ruhul Amin said.

Mr Amin is among a number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who have told the ABC they'd risk boat journeys elsewhere if Bangladesh tried to return them to Myanmar.

"We would prefer to drown ourselves in ocean rather than go back," he said.

"Many people are talking about it," said another, 37-year-old Jafar Mia.

Yesterday, a Myanmar official announced that such a repatriation deal had been agreed, although no timeline set.

"We are ready to take them back as soon as possible after Bangladesh sends the forms back to us," said Myint Kyaing, a permanent secretary at Myanmar's Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population, referring to registration forms the refugees were required to complete.

Rohingya refugees have previously told the ABC offers to repatriate them rang hollow, because they were based on impossible-to-meet criteria.

Asked where he would try to go instead, refugee Mr Mia listed a number of potential destinations, including Australia.

"Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries, Australia," he said.

Mr Mia said he had even gone as far as approaching middlemen.

Asked if he knew that most countries now made it extremely difficult for people to come by boat, he nodded, but said he still thought some would try to organise journeys regardless.

'Business model' questioned

While they may be motivated, some migration experts have raised doubts over the new refugees' ability to pay for passage to third countries.

Australian National University regional political and security scholar Dr Nicholas Farrelly said many were "destitute" which could deter people smugglers looking simply for profit.

Others, however, say the several hundred thousand Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh would likely having sufficient savings, while others may be able to rely on relatives already in destination countries like Malaysia to fund their voyages.

Regional migration expert Lilianne Tan said the prospect of a renewed smuggling trade needed to be taken "extremely seriously".

"The likelihood of at least some boats is incredibly high," she said.

"We have to take into account the fact that this is an incredibly desperate population and the fact that there is [already] an existing smuggling network that has been functioning in Bangladesh for some time — it doesn't take much to get that up and going again."

The smuggler with whom the ABC spoke said the total cost for a voyage to Malaysia would be 350,000 Bangladeshi Taka (about $55,000) — assuming 90 passengers, that would equate to roughly $610 per person.

The potential re-emergence of the-smuggling trade raises fresh questions for regional leaders, including Australia, as they mull responses to the situation in Myanmar.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that Myanmar's military operation responding to Rohingya insurgent attacks did amount to "ethnic cleansing", echoing the United Nations' earlier assessment.

That designation potentially opens the way for sanctions targeted at senior military figures.

The ABC has sought comment from both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, but neither replied before deadline.

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