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Migrant aid group quits Med to help Rohingya refugees

Migrant Offshore Aid Station said it did not want to risk having to take migrants back to Libya where they could face being locked up for months
Displaced Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar walk near Ukhia, at the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar, as they flee violence on 4 September 2017 (AFP)

A Malta-based humanitarian group that has been rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean for three years said on Monday it was suspending operations after months of rising tensions with Italian and Libyan authorities.

The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) was instead sending its rescue ship, Phoenix, to the Bay of Bengal to take aid to Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence in Myanmar for Bangladesh, co-founder Regina Catrambone told Reuters by telephone.

MOA is the fourth group to stop patrols for migrants trying the deadly Mediterranean crossing in the past month.

Last month, Doctors Without Borders - or Medecins sans Frontieres - followed by Save the Children and Germany's Sea Eye all suspended operations. They said their crews could no longer work safely because of the hostile stance of the Libyan authorities.

That leaves Proactiva Open Arms, Sea Watch and SOS Mediterranee still running rescue operations. On Monday, the Aquarius, operated by SOS Mediterranee with Medecins sans Frontieres medical staff, was the only rescue ship in the Mediterranean.

Catrambone said MOAS does not want to risk having to take migrants back to Libya, where they are locked up for months or even years in overcrowded warehouses with little food, no healthcare and no idea of when they will be freed.

"It's all too confused right now, and this confusion is not good for those people who pay the price with their lives," she said.

"We no longer have a definite knowledge that they will be taken to a safe port, and we don't want to rescue migrants and then be forced to return them to Libya, giving them a false hope."

Pope Francis appeals for Rohingya protection

MOAS said it would transfer its resources instead to help Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority following a recent appeal by Pope Francis for their protection.

Nearly 90,000 Rohingya have flooded into Bangladesh in the past 10 days following an uptick in fighting between militants and Myanmar's military in strife-torn western Rakhine state.

The impoverished region bordering Bangladesh has been a crucible of communal tensions between Muslims and Buddhists for years, with the Rohingya forced to live under apartheid-like restrictions on movement and citizenship.

The recent violence, which began last October when a small Rohingya militant group ambushed border posts, is the worst Rakhine has witnessed in years, with the UN saying Myanmar's army may have committed ethnic cleansing in its response.

MOAS said it would deliver "much-needed humanitarian assistance and aid to the Rohingya people" on the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Since 2014, MOAS has rescued or assisted 40,000 migrants in the Mediterranean. In August, MOAS for the first time conducted a rescue at the orders of the Libyan Coast Guard, but in that case the migrants were brought to Italy.

Some 13,000 migrants have died in the central Mediterranean since 2014 trying to make the crossing, including more than 2,200 this year, the International Organisation for Migration estimates.

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