Kept afloat by hope - the endless odyssey of the Rohingya

Faizal Ahmad* has just spent six months at sea, in an open boat crammed with 450 people, praying that Allah would deliver him to safety and a future free of persecution.

“The boat was very crowded,” the 29-year-old Rohingya Muslim from Myanmar explained through an interpreter. “It was hard to sleep or take exercise. Our legs were swollen; we were very weak. We prayed to Allah. We thought we would die at sea.”

A thin man with bushy, black hair, Ahmad rubs his legs as he talks; his muscles wasted away. “I can’t sit for very long,” he says as he shifts in his chair.

Ahmad has only been in Malaysia a week, but he knows he’s one of the lucky ones.

Thousands of people - many of them Rohingya – are thought to be adrift in the Andaman Sea and pressure is growing on the region’s governments to allow the boats to come ashore and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. 

It is a crisis that has been years in the making. The trafficking networks that existed during Myanmar’s military dictatorship have expanded to cater to the now civilian-led state’s intolerance towards its Rohingya minority while the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) has been unable either to address the problems in Myanmar or develop an effective regional refugee strategy.

“The solution lies with the Myanmar government itself,” said Bunn Negara, a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. “Their policies and their attitude have contributed to the problem, even causing it. [But] it is no longer a national problem, it is an ASEAN problem. Myanmar does not have the right to say no other country should get involved.”

See: All at sea: what lies behind Southeast Asia’s migrant crisis?

“Previously, we did not have too many hurdles for people coming in, at least when it came to the Rohingya,” said Ramachelvam Manimuthu, who heads the committee on migrants and refugees at Malaysia’s Bar Council. “What has played out in the last few weeks with the push back policy is of great concern. To say, we are pushing them out to sea and, ‘Go on your way…’ Go on their way where? It’s a regressive policy for Malaysia.”

Malaysia’s foreign minister, Anifah Aman did not respond to IRIN’s request for comment, but he is expected to hold meetings this week with his Thai and Indonesian counterparts. 

“If you start to play the blame game, you won’t find a resolution,” commented Syed Hamid Albar, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s special envoy to Myanmar and a former Malaysian foreign minister. “It’s not a border problem, it’s an issue for the foreign ministry. You cry looking at all these things happening. We are a rich region, we need to open out hearts and search our conscience.”

More than 150,000 people are currently registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Malaysia, just under a third of whom are Rohingya. But Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and treats Rohingya and all other refugees and asylum seekers as illegal migrants. Registration with UNHCR can take up to two years and even with the agency’s refugee cards, they have no right to work, cannot send their children to government schools and live at constant risk of detention. Most eke out a precarious existence on the fringes of society, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.  

Early marriage preferable to life in Myanmar 

Ahjidah Nur Mohammad arrived in Malaysia last month, after her brother-in-law paid traffickers RM6,000 ringgit (US$1,680) to free her from a house near the Thai-Malaysian border where she was being held after two months at sea. Mohammad has never been to school and she does not know how old she is, perhaps 16. “My brother-in-law brought me here to give me away in marriage,” she says. It’s not what she wants, she admits, but she was happy to escape a grim hand-to-mouth existence in Myanmar where she lived with a bullying stepmother in a small village near Maungdaw in Rakhine State, close to the Bangladesh border. 

“Sometimes mobs would come,” she says. “We couldn’t sleep at night. Sometimes we had to run away and hide.” 

Some neighbours put Mohammad in touch with a broker who put her in a small boat with about 24 other people that departed from Maungdaw. At sea, they joined a larger boat with many more people, but the women and girls were kept in a separate cabin. After being taken ashore to Thailand, they were told to call family and friends to pay the 6,000 ringgit. Mohammad only spent two days at the trafficker’s house before her brother-in-law sent the money. It was just a one-hour walk to the border.

In 2012, violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar left 200 people dead and many Rohingya villages destroyed. Land and businesses were seized and about 140,000 Rohingya, denied citizenship under legislation passed in 1982 and widely resented in Myanmar, were corralled into squalid camps where curfews were imposed. Tens of thousands have since opted to take their chances with the smugglers. 

Six months at sea 

Ahmad’s journey provides an indication of just how far-reaching the trade in people has become in Southeast Asia. 

First, he paid a fisherman in Myanmar to take him on the short trip to Bangladesh where he spent three years working odd jobs to earn a living. His father, who had been tortured by the Myanmar military and spent four months in hiding, warned him not to return home. 

“My father told me, ‘You should save your life. Don’t come here, go to Malaysia’,” Ahmad recalled.

He paid about 1,000 ringgit ($280) for the trip to an agent who was connected to his own family through marriage to an aunt. The boat set off from Teknaf in Bangladesh, picking up more passengers along the way to ensure it was as full as possible. The passengers including women and children, Rohingya as well as Bangladeshis, were customers of four different brokers. The traffickers smoothed the ship’s passage by dispensing bribes to local officials and maritime patrols. 

They crossed the Bay of Bengal in just under two months, but when they arrived within a short distance of Thailand’s coastline, the traffickers said they were worried about naval patrols and headed back out to sea. They then spent more than four months at sea, watched over by armed and sometimes brutal guards, and surviving on meagre rations of rice and dried fish. By the time their ordeal came to an end, nearly 30 people had died and been tossed overboard.

Once on land, despite being so weak they could barely walk, the group trudged for almost 24 hours through the jungle to the Thai-Malaysian border. The traffickers threatened and beat those who fell behind. When Thai police stumbled upon the group, they opened fire and during the confusion of the shoot-out, a small group, Ahmad among them, managed to escape. A rubber tapper then put them in touch with someone who, for a fee, could smuggle them to Malaysia. 

After finally arriving in Kuala Lumpur, unlike most new arrivals, Ahmad had no family or friends to call on. He met a good Samaritan in a restaurant who offered him a place to stay.

“I cannot work, I don’t have any money, I cannot go anywhere and I’m afraid of the police,” he said. “But, I do have hope.”

*Not his real name