More than 1,600 Rohingya Muslims have been arrested in the last five years and sentenced to the harshest possible penalties in Myanmar for leaving their home to seek a better life, according to a new report.

Most of those arrested were sentenced to “hard labor” for between two to five years under the country’s controversial laws, said the report by the London-based Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN).

The report, Nowhere to Run in Burma: Rohingya Trapped Between an Open-air Prison and Jail sets out how Rohingya have been stripped of citizenship, denied the right to their identity under domestic laws, and subjected to severe travel restrictions in Rakhine State of Myanmar.

The report documents 160 separate cases amounting to the arrests of at least 1,675 Rohingya Muslims.

They were convicted under two controversial laws; the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act and the 1947 Burma Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act, which bans them from leaving Rakhine State.

The figure includes Rohingya children, who received similar sentences but are separated from their parents or relatives and detained in either juvenile detention centres or youth training centres run by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, according to the report.

“When Rohingya attempt to exercise their right to freedom of movement and seek a better life for themselves, they face being criminalised for travelling without identity documents, or the travel authorisations that are virtually impossible to obtain,” the rights group said.

– Ethnic cleansing

“This is clear evidence of Burma’s weaponisation of its legal system against an entire ethno-religious group born and living in the country for generations,” Kyaw Win, the group’s executive director told Anadolu Agency.

“By demonising the Rohingya as ‘illegal Bengalis’ and punishing them simply for leaving the apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine State, the authorities are denying their right to their identity and their rightful place in Burmese society,” he said.

In April 2020, hundreds of Rohingya were released from prison in a presidential amnesty, which came as a result of international pressure on Myanmar government due to controversies targeting the country’s Muslim minority.

However, the report exposes that the release of Rohingya detainees during the presidential amnesty was conditional, as they were required to sign a pledge stating that they would not attempt to travel outside of Rakhine State again.

Kyaw said: “They should never have been arrested in the first place for exercising their right to freedom of movement.

“These immigration orders do not indicate any systemic change. Restrictions on the right to freedom of movement and the right to a nationality for Rohingya remain in place. Their conditional release just returns Rohingya from jail to the open prison of Rakhine State. They have nowhere to run in Burma.”

– ‘Difficult choices’

The report also highlights “many of the difficult choices” faced by most Rohingya.

“In recent weeks, faced with the risk of contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh – versus an insecure and uncertain future in their places of origin – small numbers of Rohingya refugees have sought to return to northern Rakhine State,” according to the report.

However, they have been arrested on arrival, detained, and in some cases sentenced to six months in prison under the same laws, the report said.

“Without significant pressure from the international community, Burma is unlikely to abolish the unjust laws and policies that form the apparatus of systemic discrimination used to persecute the Rohingya,” Kyaw said.

The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.

The number of Rohingya refugees seeking shelter in neighboring Bangladesh has swelled to 1.2 million after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017.

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