By Vivian Tan, UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Study finds thousands of Rohingya fleeing violence and desperation have sought safety and stability in countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia in the last five years.

BANGKOK, Thailand – More than 168,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in the last five years as a result of violence and desperation, a new report on forced displacement in South-East Asia by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, estimates.

UNHCR’s just-released 2016 Report on Mixed Movements in South-East Asia highlights the complex dynamics behind the whys and hows of the continuing exodus from Rakhine state. Sources range from government to non-governmental organizations, media reports as well as more than 1,000 direct interviews with the Rohingya community in the region.

While Rohingya displacement has persisted for decades, it made headlines last October when attacks on border posts in northern Rakhine state triggered a security clearance operation that drove an estimated 43,000 civilians into Bangladesh by year’s end. By February this year, the estimate stood at 74,000.

Many of the new arrivals in Bangladesh’s camps and makeshift sites told UNHCR about the burnings, lootings, shootings, rapes and arrests they escaped back home.

“These children, women and men are highly vulnerable. They risk being re-victimized even in exile unless urgent action is taken,” said Shinji Kubo, UNHCR’s Representative in Bangladesh.

“Many of them need adequate shelter before the rainy season starts. Without proper support, they also face risks such as child labour, gender-based violence and trafficking.”

Prior to the recent violence, Malaysia was the preferred destination for many Rohingya. Between 2012 and 2015, an estimated 112,500 of them risked their lives on smuggler’s boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in the hope of reaching Malaysia, where there is a Rohingya community and potential work in the informal sector.

Those making the sea journey ranged from people fleeing inter-communal violence in Rakhine state in 2012, to those who grew increasingly desperate amid restrictions back home on their freedom of movement and access to services and livelihoods.

The sea route has been disrupted since mid-2015, when governments in the region cracked down on maritime smuggling networks. UNHCR could not confirm any boat arrivals in Malaysia last year.

Among those who tried to reach Malaysia overland in 2016, more than 100 – about half of them Rohingya – were reportedly arrested in Myanmar and Thailand.

The 2016 report explores other routes taken by the Rohingya, including to India via Bangladesh. It notes a steady but slowing stream of arrivals since 2012 numbering at least 13,000 people.

“Looking at the declining arrival numbers in India, it is safe to assume that this overland route has not replaced the maritime one,” said Keane Shum of UNHCR’s Regional Mixed Movements Monitoring Unit that produced the report. “Compared to those who went to Malaysia by sea, the Rohingya in India travelled in larger family units and chose the route as it was cheaper and safer.”

Besides analysing patterns of Rohingya displacement, the report also offers a snapshot of 85 Rohingya women and girls in India, Indonesia and Malaysia. It found that the majority of them married young – between the ages of 16 and 17 – and gave birth at an average age of 18.

Those in India appeared to be more literate and educated, and were more likely to have chosen their own husbands. In contrast, those in Malaysia were more likely to have married someone chosen by their families or by brokers or agents.

One-third of the 85 women and girls said they were victims of domestic violence. Many said they would like to earn their own income and some had marketable skills, but only a few were actually earning their own income.

UNHCR has been working with host countries on the temporary stay and protection of Rohingya refugees, which includes granting them access to basic services and legal work. This will enable them to be self-reliant until longer-term solutions are found.

The agency has also been advocating with the Myanmar authorities for the full resumption of humanitarian access to vulnerable people in northern Rakhine state.

UNHCR stands ready to support government efforts to promote peaceful co-existence and address issues related to citizenship.

The total number of Rohingya refugees and internally displaced Rohingya in the region is estimated at 420,000 and 120,000 respectively.