Nineteen young men, believed to be ethnic Bengalis, were arrested in Kalay, Sagaing Division, on Monday on suspicion of illegally entering Burma from a neighboring country.
The men were first discovered in a field of reeds about 15 km outside of the town by a group calling itself the “Association to Protect Race, Language and Religion.”
“There were 20 at first, but one managed to get away,” said Sayadaw Pannawuntha, a Buddhist monk who is also the vice president of the association. “Five or six of them could speak Burmese, but the rest could only communicate in Bengali. None of them had ID cards,” he added.
The Burmese-speakers said they came from Maungdaw Township in Arakan State, and that they had traveled through Bangladesh and reentered Burma near the border where Burma, Bangladesh and India meet.
The others said through a Bengali interpreter that they arrived in Burma via India, and had crossed Chin State to reach Kalay.
“Some said they came from Maungdaw, but we don’t know if they were affected by the conflict there or not. They said that they planned to travel through Mandalay and Rangoon and then cross the border into Thailand en route to Malaysia,” said Sayadaw Pannawuntha.
Kalay has reportedly become a popular transit point for illegal migrants, as it is easily accessible from Chin State, where security is not as tight as it is in Arakan, the site of a series of communal clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that began in June.
According to police in the town, there have been at least 20 cases of illegal migrants being caught while traveling through the area, leading to the arrest of around 100 individuals.
Last month, 16 young men believed to be Bengalis were arrested separately in the Mautlin area of Kalay. In September, 10 Bengali men were arrested in the same region and sentenced to seven years in the prison for illegal entry, while their two guides were given five-year sentences.
The police said that the men arrested on Monday are now being questioned. They said that some will face charges under the Immigration Act, while the rest will be charged under the Human Trafficking Act and could face two to seven years in prison.