Fishing boats on Ohn Daw Gyi beach, near Sittwe, Myanmar (Alex Bookbinder).
After making a fraught voyage across the ocean, 16-year-old Ismail – now working in Kuala Lumpur – has fared better than many other Rohingya refugees.
Every night, Khoilla Mia and Bodu Jamal go to sleep surrounded by their six children, rattan mats laid out on the floor of their tiny bamboo-thatch house. Boasting just ten metres of floor space – including the family’s cooking area – Bodu Jamal frets that it isn’t suitable accommodation for eight people. “Some of the kids sleep in the entrance room,” she says.
Their home is one of hundreds of simple dwellings located in the Thet Kae Pyin camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), located just outside Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s Arakan State. The majority of Thet Kae Pyin’s inhabitants are Rohingya Muslims left homeless in the wake of attacks and homes on their property three years ago. For the displaced, life is a daily fight for survival, compounded by a lack of clear avenues to build a meaningful life anew, stymied by a government that denies them these pathways at every turn.
Sick of always being hungry, and resentful of the opportunities denied to him, Ismail – the couple’s eldest son, just 16 years old – left the camp last year. When he was approached by traffickers promising steady, well-paid work in Malaysia, he leapt at the chance.
“He was suffering here. The food we get from the WFP [World Food Programme] wasn’t enough, and living conditions were very difficult,” says Khoilla Mia, his father.
The journey he embarked on – an arduous sea voyage across the Bay of Bengal – is one that has been made by tens of thousands of Rohingyas over the past three years, escaping a system that has left them destitute and which denies them basic rights – citizenship, mobility, health.
Ismail is one of the lucky ones – he survived. Countless others have not. The discovery of mass graves in early May at abandoned trafficking camps in Thailand and Malaysia catapulted the already well-documented trans-Andaman slave trade into intense focus, prompting a belated crackdown by the Thai and Malaysian authorities. Although, after much vacillation, the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia allowed boats already at sea to land on their shores, the push factors that have prompted the mass exodus have not diminished.
Today, most of the Muslims that used to live in Sittwe, the vast majority of who are Rohingyas, live in an archipelago of camps scattered around the peninsula the city lies on. Sittwe is a city cleansed: the streets are devoid of Muslim influence, flecked by abandoned and destroyed mosques and madrasas, a reality belying its history as a multiethnic, multi-religious port city. The Muslim denizens of Aung Mingalar quarter in the city centre are an exception, but they are thoroughly separated from the outside world by police checkpoints manned around the clock.
Ismail’s family hails from Narzi quarter in downtown Sittwe. Before the violence, they operated a small restaurant, and had, by their own estimation, a reasonably comfortable life. But all that changed in June 2012, when ugly resentment by the state’s Arakanese Buddhist majority against its Muslim minorities – particularly the Rohingya – boiled over.
On 8 June that year, the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by Muslim men prompted rioting in Maungdaw, a ten-hour boat ride north of Sittwe. When he heard the news, Khoilla Mia was reasonably confident that the violence would not spread further south. “We were worried about the situation, but the Arakan State government and elders from the Arakanese community came to the village and talked to Rohingya leaders, and assured us that we had nothing to worry about,” he says. “They said the government would provide us with full protection.”
These assurances rang hollow, however. “The Arakanese community started to set fire to the Rohingya houses in a village nearby. The next day, they surrounded our entire quarter, and we couldn’t leave,” he says.
He claims the mob, protected by the police, threw Molotov cocktails at their houses. “We tried to protect our homes, but we couldn’t because the police shot rubber bullets at us,” he says.
Fearful for their lives, Narzi’s Muslims congregated in the courtyard of a neighbourhood mosque. The police then informed them that they would be transferred to a nearby rural area, ostensibly for their own safety. Muslims were told to surrender anything that might be able to be used as a weapon – bamboo sticks, cooking utensils. “The situation was so terrible, we had no choice but to agree,” Bodu Jamal says. “We tried to bring some of our property with us – anything – but the authorities forbade us from doing so.”
The family was taken to Bumay village, which today serves as the main entry point to the IDP camps and is now the closest Rohingya village to the city centre. Finally, the family found refuge at a madrasa in the village of Thae Chaung. “We had nothing to wear except for the clothes on our backs,” Bodu Jamal recounts. “But thankfully, some villagers from Thae Chaung gave us some new clothes, and fed us.”
Limited government aid – in the form of half a tin of rice per person, per day – arrived after two days. After one month at the madrasa, they settled on farmland near Thae Chaung’s cemetery. Unable to return to their homes, and having lost all their possessions to the violence, they slept under a tarpaulin in a field for 18 months before moving to a newly-constructed Thet Kae Pyin.
But while residence in the camp – and the WFP food aid that came with it – offered them a veneer of security, life has not been easy since. Their status as IDPs, legally registered with the state government, entitles them to 52 tins of rice, six tins of beans and a litre of oil per person, per month, but they still go hungry on occasion. Other ingredients, necessary to make meals complete, are purchased through day-labouring wages occasionally earned by Khoilla Mia and their 14-year-old son. “It’s not enough, but we make do,” Bodu Jamal says.
For Ismail, waiting around for dignity in the dusty camps was not enough; he decided that he would seek out greener pastures in Malaysia. But the traffickers’ promise of a better life abroad amounted to a bait-and-switch. He soon found himself captive in a trafficking camp in Southern Thailand, and it fell upon his parents to extricate him. Two months after his departure from Thet Kae Pyin, his parents received a phone call from the traffickers demanding US$1,800 to secure his release.
Khoilla Mia and Bodu Jamal worried about how to pay the ransom, but – unlike many Rohingya families – they did not have to sell off possessions or borrow money from relatives to pay an extortionate ransom. In a stroke of luck, they claim the traffickers fell afoul of the Thai authorities, abandoning the camp and their charges in an attempt to avoid the police. With the guards on the lam, Ismail had a chance at freedom.
Heading out from the remote area in which he was held, Ismail and a number of other refugees sought out safe haven at a mosque in Thailand. The Imam they reached out to called the police, however, and Ismail and his compatriots were taken into custody. When the police determined that he was under 18, he was sent to a detention facility for young people, and was held there for four months. Every day at four o’clock in the afternoon, he told his parents, the detained boys would be let out to play football. “That’s how he managed to escape,” Bodu Jamal explains.
Not long after his getaway from police custody, Ismail met a Malaysian man, who promised him work and accommodation in Kuala Lumpur. He was smuggled across the border by his new benefactor, who, his parents say, provided him with medical care to take care of the injuries he sustained at the hands of the traffickers and the poor conditions in detention in Thailand.
But his Malaysian sponsor’s motives were far from altruistic. Although he has secured employment, working in construction, he is now indebted to the man and his company to the tune of US$1,200. Because he is still in debt, he has not been able to send any money home. “We don’t now what will happen to him in the future, because we’re here and we don’t know the situation in Malaysia, but we hope that he will be fine,” Khoilla Mia says.
The rest of the family would readily join him in Malaysia if it were an option, but they concede that doing so is not realistic. They have not been approached by traffickers – whose networks have been disrupted in any case – and, even if they were, the family is all too aware of the horrors involved to consider leaving by boat an option.
Relegated to Thet Kae Pyin, the family’s options are limited, and they do not foresee anything getting better moving forward. They are aware that Rohingyas will not be allowed to vote in this year’s elections, but Ismail’s parents would likely not be allowed to vote in any case, as they lost their “white cards” – temporary, non-citizen identification documents – that allowed Rohingyas to vote in the 2010 polls. Nonetheless, they are acutely aware that participation in the political process can be a key to freedom. “We’re worried that the government is going to neglect us, and neglect our rights,” Bodu Jamal says.
A more pressing issue is the fact that their 14-year-old son is the family’s primary breadwinner – a reality they are deeply uncomfortable with. The family must care for the remaining six children – aside from Ismail – who live in the camp, the youngest of which is just four years old. “We want our children to have more experience and knowledge, but we can’t afford to send them to school,” Bodu Jamal says. “The youngest attend NGO-funded primary schools, but that’s it.”
For now, they have resigned themselves to waiting, as there is little else they can do. “How long will we have to live in this situation? Our children are not happy living like this. It’s a difficult situation,” she says. “We look to the future, but we don’t see one.”