Pushed from Burma, Stateless Rohingya Flee by Boat

In the wake of bloody sectarian violence last year, more and more Rohingyas are betting what little they still have on a dangerous journey at sea

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Jason Motlagh / The Washington Post / Getty Images

An ethnic Rohingya man climbs aboard his boat in Sittwe, Burma on Jan. 31, 2013

A large chunk of Abdul Rahman’s home is gone, and so is his oldest son, Shakur. The ethnic Rohingya farmer tore down nearly half his home for scrap needed to secure his son’s passage on a boat bound for Malaysia. In the wake of bloody sectarian violence last year that left hundreds dead and forced tens of thousands of minority Muslim Rohingya into camps outside the coastal city of Sittwe, Rahman, 52, insists his people are being “strangled” by a Burmese government that does not want them. While foreign donors have supplied basic food rations, checkpoints manned by armed guards prevent the displaced from returning to the paddies and markets their livelihoods depend on. “Even animals can move more freely,” says Rahman.

These days, more and more Rohingya are betting what little they still have on a dangerous journey at sea. Community leaders and boatmen involved in the exodus say the volume of passengers is unprecedented because of enduring tensions and a total lack of mobility inside Burma, also known as Myanmar, where the Rohingya have faced decades of discrimination and neglect. The growing sense of despair is borne out by the roughly 1,800 refugees who washed up in Thailand in January. And they keep arriving, on overloaded boats without navigational equipment, despite a voyage that can take up to two weeks. If they’re lucky: of the 13,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar and Bangladesh last year, the U.N. says at least 485 were known to have drowned.

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“Now there is just one choice left for us: go and live with other Muslims,” says Sayed Alam, 20, an unemployed shop worker, as he prepared to leave Sittwe, the state capital, with two friends. “There is so much fear in this place.”

The plight of Burma’s Rohingya minority continues to cast a pall on its transition to democracy. Called one of the most-persecuted minorities in the world, the Rohingya are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied citizenship though many families have lived in the country for generations. Last June, their woes intensified after reports that an Arakanese Buddhist woman was raped by three Rohingya men set off a wave of communal clashes. Mobs of Buddhists and Muslims rampaged through villages with swords and rods, burning homes and beheading victims. In a damning report, Human Rights Watch alleged that Burmese security forces committed killings, rape and mass arrests against Rohingya Muslims after failing to protect them and Arakanese Buddhists during the riots.

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Eight months on, pockets of Rohingya that remain in rural Arakan state are in serious trouble. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announced in early February that its field teams continued to face hostile threats from Arakanese leaders and state forces that forced them to cut back medical care. Moreover, the aid agency warned of a brewing “humanitarian emergency” in the heavily restricted camps around Sittwe. Burmese officials claim the camps are necessary to shield the Rohingya population from further harm, but MSF says that acute malnutrition, skin infections and other ailments caused by poor sanitation are on the rise, especially among those uprooted by a second spasm of violence in October and now live on the margins of established camps.

“My children are sick, they are hungry,” says Halima, 30, a pregnant mother of five who arrived in late October and lives in a straw hut on a dusty plain. She cooked a pot of rice over a dung fire — the family’s only meal of the day. Her children wandered half-naked, their bellies swollen with hunger, in view of a food depot where residents of a formal camp collected rations of rice, beans and palm oil. Because Halima and her family were not directly affected by the violence, they are not registered as “displaced” people, and therefore ineligible for foreign aid. This explains the absence of her husband. “He is away looking for more food,” she says. “We must have something for tomorrow.”

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While aid officials and activists debate how many are without assistance, the urgent problems posed by the Rohingya’s near-total lack of mobility are clear. Denied access to farmlands and town markets, able-bodied men are unable to earn any money as day laborers, leaving them fully dependent on aid, explains Carlos Veloso, country director for the U.N. World Food Program in Burma. This is problematic, he points out, since the international donors currently needed to feed legions of displaced (and must renew funding due to expire in April) don’t want to create permanent settlements.

Faced with stagnant conditions inside the camps and insecurity everywhere else, greater numbers are taking their chances on the open sea. Mohdi Kasim, a prominent Rohingya community leader living in one of the camps, described how his neighbor, a veteran police officer, showed up at his door earlier in the morning in tears asking for money to help cover his boat fare. Both of his sons had already left. According to Idriss, 35, a Rohingya boat builder with gold rings on his fingers, two to three vessels are leaving the Sittwe area every night, often packed with over 100 passengers. “We tell the people it’s not safe, but they insist on going,” he says. “They are suffering so much here.” (Both Idriss and Halima decline to disclose their full names for fear of persecution.)

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But the risks do not end off the water. In January, more than 800 Rohingya were rescued in raids against human-trafficking networks across southern Thailand, according to Thai media reports. An army colonel and another high-ranking officer are under investigation for suspected involvement, as well as a local politician. Abdul Kalam, a Rohingya activist based in Thailand, took part in a Jan. 10 raid on a remote compound in Songkhla province where about 300 refugees were being held. Brokers were demanding more than $2,000 to smuggle them into Malaysia. Several Rohingya were among the men arrested.

The Thai government has agreed to let the refugees stay for six months before they are repatriated or sent to third countries. (Malaysia, for its part, has been receptive to those who reach its shores.) In the meantime, new arrivals are being held in detainment centers, unable to make phone calls home to those they left behind. Kalam is hopeful that the U.N. refugee agency and international pressure will move the Thais to grant Rohingya amnesty. A return to Burma, he adds, is out of the question. “So many people told me, ‘If you’re going to send me back to [Burma], you should kill me now instead.’”

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Abdul Rahman, the farmer, counts his son as “one of the lucky ones.” Less than two weeks after his departure, he received a phone call from Malaysia that he’d made the crossing successfully and was looking for work. Another of his sons will soon follow, he says, meaning more money had to be raised. Standing in front of what’s left of his home, he reflected on what else he could sell.

— Motlagh reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting