Who are the Rohingya people fleeing Burma by sea?

BURMA -- More than 200 migrants were rescued by Burma's navy Friday from the waters off southeast Asia. Thousands more are still stranded at sea, after fleeing poverty and religious persecution.

Many of the migrants are Rohingya - a Muslim minority from overwhelmingly Buddhist Burma. They have lived along the border with Muslim Bangladesh for generations.

Long simmering religious animosity exploded three years ago, when Buddhist mobs burned Muslim villages. More than 100,000 Rohingya fled to government refugee camps. We found Abdusalem at one.

"My family ran to survive," he said. "They're barely surviving now."

The camps are off limits, but we managed to slip in. The people are frightened, hungry and stateless. Rohingya are not considered citizens of Burma.

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Matt Smith, a human rights worker documenting conditions in government refugee camps in Berma
CBS News

Matt Smith, a human rights worker documenting conditions in the camps, says they're essentially "concentration camps."

"People are confined in these camps," said Smith. "They can't leave these areas."

Smith told us most people's only option is to flee by sea.

"We're seeing people risking their lives actually to get on boats to flee to other countries," said Smith.

We went to the capital to ask President Thein Sein about the Rohingya.

"They are illegal immigrants and now some of their generations are being born here," said Sein. "We'll scrutinize these people to see if they are eligible for citizenship. If not, we'll consider other circumstances."

For thousands of Rohingya, circumstances in Burma are so dire they'd rather face the forbidding sea.