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One hundred and fifty boat people were repatriated from Maungdaw in northwest Arakan State to Bangladesh on Monday afternoon, some 18 days after the Burmese navy found their boat adrift off the Arakanese coast.
“The handing over of the 150 Bangladeshi nationals were completed at 13:30 hrs after the inspection process and signing of official document,” reported Burma’s state-run Global New Light of Myanmar on Tuesday. “Lt-Col Khandaker Saiful Alam received 150 Bangladeshi nationals who were handed over by Pol-Col Myo Swe, deputy regional commander of police border guards of Myanmar [Burma]. The Bangladeshi delegation accepted the 150 boat people and left for Bangladesh at 15:10 hrs.”
AFP reporters at the scene confirmed the exchange, saying the migrants were transferred under armed guard.
The transfer of the men across a bridge over the Naf River separating the two countries began late morning, AFP reporters on the scene said.
“I’m happy,” one of the men, who gave his name as Uzzal, told AFP in English. “Four months after, go back to Bangladesh, to the family, very happy.”
After accepting 150 people back, a Bangladeshi border official said the complicated process of establishing where the remaining 60 people belong was ongoing.
“Only after the verification we can say how many or if any Bangladeshis are among these migrants,” Lt-Col Khandaker Saiful Alam, head of Bangladesh’s border guard unit in Cox’s Bazar, told AFP.
The 150 were among 208 boat people crammed into a smuggling ship that was discovered by the Burmese navy off the coast of Maungdaw on 21 May. The migrants were taken ashore for processing, and it was announced that 200 were Bangladeshi and the other eight Burma-based Rohingya. The process was verified by the UN’s special advisor Vijay Nambiar. The Thai captain of the ship was subsequently arrested.
It is believed that the ship was returning from Thailand where it had turned back after a crackdown on people-smuggling in the country had severed the smugglers’ chain of communication.
Bangladesh’s boat people have received little sympathy from the country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who last month dubbed them “mentally sick” for leaving and tarnishing Bangladesh’s image.
The Cox’s Bazar region is notoriously poor and known for powerful trafficking gangs who had, until recently, operated largely unhindered, AFP said, adding that just hours before the group was repatriated Bangladeshi police announced that a Rohingya man suspected of involvement in people-trafficking had been shot dead in a fight with rival gangs in Teknaf, near the Burmese border.
Last month three men accused of being involved in the trade were gunned down by police in the same region, AFP said.
In recent years tens of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Burma and Bangladeshi economic migrants have fled on boats across the Bay of Bengal in search of better prospects, usually to Malaysia.
The lucrative smuggling and trafficking industry was largely ignored until a Thai crackdown last month upended those routes and led to gangmasters abandoning their victims at sea and on land.
Since then, around 4,500 of them have returned to shore, but the UN estimates around 2,000 are still at sea.
Nearly 1,000 have been taken to Burma’s western Arakan [Rakhine] State, which borders Bangladesh, after being found by Burma’s navy in two boats in the Bay of Bengal.
Neither nation initially showed a willingness to accept them and rights groups are concerned some could be pushed to the wrong side of the border.
Naypyidaw insists the majority of those discovered recently are Bangladeshis leading to fears it may try to deport unwanted Rohingya Muslims, some 1.3 million of whom live in Arakan State, where tensions between its Buddhist majority and the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority are ongoing since deadly communal violence broke out in the region in 2012.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship and face a raft of restrictions, including on their movement, family size and jobs.
Buddhist hardliners there are planning a day of protest on Sunday against local authorities for helping the desperate boat migrants.
The fate of 733 other migrants found on another boat on 19 May has yet to be decided, with officials from both Burma and Bangladesh still in the process of verifying their nationalities.