36 Rohingya Refugees Leave Malaysia for Resettlement in US

Hata Wahari
Kuala Lumpur
160527_MY_US_ROHINGYA_1000.jpg A Rohingya woman naps near the Kuala Lumpur office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Aug. 11, 2015.

Thirty-six Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar were on their way to resettlement in the United States after leaving a detention center in Malaysia, the U.N.’s refugee agency confirmed Friday.

The 36 were part of a wave of Rohingyas who landed in Malaysia during a migration crisis that gripped Southeast Asia in May 2015, according to the Kuala Lumpur office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“They left about 2 a.m. [on Thursday],” Yante Ismail, spokesperson for UNHCR in Malaysia, told BenarNews. She declined to say specifically where the Rohingyas were heading to in the U.S. as part of the U.N. agency’s program to resettle refugees in third countries.

In Washington, the press office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a BenarNews request for information about the arrival of the three dozen Rohingyas.

They were among at least 370 Rohingyas who were detained by Malaysia when they came ashore last year after fleeing Myanmar aboard human-smuggling boats. Rohingyas are a stateless people and a persecuted religious minority in majority Buddhist Myanmar, according to human rights advocacy groups.

The 36 U.S.-bound Rohingyas were released from Malaysian detention on Wednesday afternoon, UNHCR said in a news release.

“UNHCR welcomes the move by the Malaysian Government to release the 36 extremely vulnerable Rohingya refugees from the Belantik Immigration Detention Centre,” Richard Towle, the U.N. agency’s representative in Malaysia, said in a statement.

“We are also extremely grateful to the Government of the United States of America for their generosity in providing resettlement spaces for this group of extremely vulnerable individuals, for whom no other safe, long-term solution would be an option,” he added.

Towle voiced concern about the other 334 Rohingyas still being held at the detention center, 12 months after their arrival.

“These people have undergone traumatic experiences at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, and are in need of specialized care,” Towle said. “The best option for them is to be released into UNHCR’s care where we can assess their protection needs and help find support for them within the refugee communities in Malaysia.”

‘I can finally live a free live’

Last year’s irregular migration crisis saw some 3,000 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants come ashore in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. The crisis erupted when Thai authorities imposed a maritime blockade on people-smuggling boats, following the discovery of graves of undocumented migrants in the jungle near Thailand’s border with Malaysia.

According to estimates cited by UNHCR, approximately 370 refugees and migrants who departed from the Bay of Bengal by sea in 2015 died before reaching land, “mostly from starvation, dehydration, disease, and abuse by people smugglers.”

Among the batch of 36 being resettled in the U.S. are two 19-year-old Rohingya girls, Bibi and Aishah, who met one another last year aboard one of the smuggling boats.

They were then traveling alone and without their families, but have now become best friends. The two will start their new lives together in the United States, UNHCR said.

“We were together in the boat. We came together to Malaysia. We spent one year in detention together,” Bibi told UNHCR. “I am so glad we are going together to the U.S. I am so glad that I can finally live a free life.”

Imran Vittachi in Washington contributed to this report.


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