Myanmar faces calls to release 30 Rohingya men, women and children arrested in September while trying to travel from Rakhine state to the city of Yangon.
A total of 21 Rohingya face up to two years in jail under Myanmar’s Residents of Burma Registration Act, which stipulates that citizens must be in possession of “registration cards” to prove their identity.
Nine children travelling as part of the group were sent to juvenile detention centres. A five-year-old boy’s fate is yet to be decided, activists said.
They allegedly paid traffickers between 500,000 and 700,000 kyats (£270-£380) to transport them to Yangon, where they hoped to find work or passage out of Myanmar.
“It’s a cruel irony that these Rohingya will be trading what was effectively confinement to open-air detention in Rakhinestate for confinement in a state prison in Pathein,” said Brad Adams, executive director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The Rohingya have faced waves of persecution in Myanmar. In 2017, amid alleged mass slaughter and arson attacks in their villages, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, settling in refugee camps near the border.
Within Myanmar, Rohingya are prohibited from travelling outside certain areas without official permission. Myanmar considers Rohingya people illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them access to basic services and rights.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, said many Rohingya remaining in Rakhine state live in virtual imprisonment, with daily life subject to multiple restrictions such as limited access to money and jobs, constant monitoring by police and violent vigilantism. “It’s like apartheid,” he said. “It’s a horrific situation that has gone unnoticed by the world.”
Human rights organisations have warned repeatedly that ongoing negotiations between Bangladesh and Myanmar about returning Rohingya refugees could lead to further persecution, especially because Myanmar continues to deny Rohingya Muslims citizenship.
Adam said the imprisonment of Rohingya trying to leave the country “stands as a clear marker to the United Nations and foreign governments encouraging the return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh that Myanmar has no interest in granting its Rohingya population fundamental freedoms”.
The jailed Rohingya said that they had initially set out as a group of 44 from Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, where they lived in townships. But their group shrunk after authorities stopped them at a jetty.
The decision to jail them came after a one-day trial at which the Rohingya were denied legal representation, said HRW.
Tin Hlaing, a Muslim from Thae Chaung village, who according to Radio Free Asia had tried to stop the group from travelling, said the families of the imprisoned group were “gravely concerned” about their safety.
“They are going through various hardships with a scarcity of job opportunities and restrictions on their movements,” he said. “They didn’t accept our suggestions because they felt the pressure of their hardship and joblessness.”