Jolie turns spotlight on plight of refugees

Hundreds feared dead after being towed out to sea
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The Independent Online

Aid officials are to visit around 400 Burmese Muslims who have fled their country and arrived on the shores of Indonesia – the latest in a wave of ethnic Rohingya refugees who have put to the sea in recent months.

The decision came after a boat carrying around 200 Rohingya men was discovered off Sumatra. Another boat, also with about 200 Rohingya aboard, was discovered in early January. Hundreds more are missing at sea.

"We are prepared to engage the United Nations to deal with those not willing to voluntarily go back," said Teuku Faizasyah, a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We are willing to do our best to find a way for the remainder to be settled in a wise manner."

However, the authorities have made clear they will not allow the refugees to stay. "Our policy remains the same, we are not a country for refugees," he said.

The refugees belong to a stateless Muslim minority that lives on the border between Burma and Bangladesh, in particular in Rakhine state. They have long been persecuted by the Burmese government, which bans them from marrying, travelling without permission and from owning property. They are even denied citizenship.

As a result, large numbers have regularly sought to escape to neighbouring Bangladesh. In 1978, around 200,000 fled there after a particularly brutal crackdown, known as the Dragon King operation. In 1992 a similar number fled to the Cox's Bazaar area, though many were forced to return.

More recently they have turned to the sea to escape – first to Thailand, from where they make their way overland to Malaysia and Indonesia. Last month, the Thai authorities were accused of towing boats of Rohingya out to sea and setting them adrift.

Yesterday the refugees received an unanticipated boost from the actress Angelina Jolie, who called on the Thai government to respect their rights.

Jolie, who was in Thailand with her partner, Brad Pitt, to visit one of the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, said: "I also hope the Rohingya situation stabilises and their life in [Burma] improves so the people do not feel the desperate need to flee."

Kitt McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said it was a coincidence that Jolie's visit came as the plight of the Rohingya was receiving renewed attention. "She was extremely touched by the plight of the Rohingya people," he said. "She expressed the hope that the human rights of the Rohingya people will be respected."

Meanwhile, an early day motion tabled by the British MP John Bercow noted that, "the House is appalled that Thailand's navy has left around 1,000 Rohingya refugees adrift in the ocean in boats without engines or food or water; [and] is deeply concerned that hundreds may have died as a result."

The two boats that showed up in Indonesian waters are believed to have been among vessels carrying about 1,200 Rohingya who fled Burma for Thailand. So far, around 850 refugees in six boats have been found in the Andaman Sea. Three other boats arrived in India and one in Thailand, but three remain unaccounted for.

The Indonesian authorities had initially said the Rohingya were economic migrants and that they would not permit the UN authorities to visit them. They changed their position with the landing this week of the second boat and the reports of abuse.