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Hundreds of members of the Muslim Rohingya minority of Burma have been rescued in waters off the coasts of Indonesia and India in recent months. Dehydrated and in need of medical attention, some of the men bore scars on their backs from beatings reportedly received by Burmese soldiers.
A group of nearly 200 men were found by fishermen near the northern tip of Sumatra. Some told reporters they had originally fled to Thailand, but were detained, beaten, and sent back out to sea without adequate food or water. The men reported that some had died in the difficult journey.
The Indonesian government has provided assistance to the Rohingya who landed on their shores. And the Thai government, responding to international criticism, has stopped sending Rohingyas back out to sea, and is working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help the Rohingya who have landed in Thailand recently.
The Burmese military junta's persecution of the Rohingyan people, however, is nothing new. It is so severe that nearly 1,000 risked their lives to flee by sea in 2008.
Todd Pierce of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration says the Rohingya are what are referred to as "stateless people" because the Burmese government does not recognize their citizenship:
"They can't marry without permission, own property, travel, it's a very tough situation. They're basically in prison where they live. … They have a well-founded fear of persecution."
The U.S. provides assistance to the Rohingya where possible, through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which has clinics and basic schools in Burma. But Mr. Pierce says the military regime blocks some efforts:
"It's often very difficult to work in Burma … the government of the country where they are is often a little bit wary about letting international organizations work with those people, because again, they don't want to acknowledge that those people exist."
The U.S. has also resettled some Rohingya referred by the United Nations in the United States and asks countries the Rohingya flee to, such as Thailand, to carefully screen the migrants to determine whether they need protection.
"Our view is that persecution should stop," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said during a recent trip to Bangladesh. "We all need to see what we can do to take care of these folks."