A Film by Jason Motlagh & James Hall
In June 2012, mobs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists tore through Rohingya Muslim neighbourhoods in the coastal town of Sittwe, attacking anyone in their path. Mohammad Idriss, a member of the persecuted minority, took refuge with relatives indoors. In a moment of panic, his younger brother made the mistake of jumping from a window, only to be caught and beaten to death with sticks and iron rods. Idriss says that a neighbour dealt the first blow to the head. “All victims deserve justice, but I don’t think it will be possible even in a decade,” he says, reflecting on the massacre that night. “Our situation is hopeless.”
The killings were part of a gathering wave of sectarian violence that has spread to other parts of the country, amid accusations that security forces have turned a blind eye to bloodshed. Two years on, Idriss and most of the 140,000 Rohingya uprooted from their ancestral homes live in what have been likened to concentration camps, trapped between armed guards and the sea. Burma’s government insists it is for their own protection, but aid groups have been kicked out, and food and medical supplies are limited, resulting in a surge of deaths from treatable illnesses.
All victims deserve justice, but I don’t think it will be possible even in a decade … Our situation is hopeless.
Mohammad Idriss, Rohingya Muslim
As despair yields to desperation, greater numbers of Rohingya are risking their lives on a dangerous journey at sea to reach Malaysia, a Muslim country about 2,000 miles away, in what has become one of the largest boat exodus’ since the Vietnam War.
But in their bid for freedom, the refugees are fleeing into the hands of transnational trafficking rings in Thailand and Malaysia that are profiting from their pain with the collusion of corrupt law enforcement. Along the way, governments and international aid agencies are largely failing to protect refugees from abuse and exploitation.
“What’s happening now is a vicious cycle of abuse,” says Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based group that has been investigating abuses against the Rohingya. “The number of people getting on boats, risking their lives, to leave this situation, is only increasing,” he adds, and the responsibility “rests on the shoulders of the international community, that is ultimately failing to respond in a way that will promote the human rights of this population.”
Late last year, Muhibullah spent 17 days on a smuggler’s boat where he saw a man thrown overboard. On reaching Thai shores, he was bundled into a truck and delivered to a jungle camp packed with hundreds of refugees and armed men, where his nightmare intensified. Bound to shafts of bamboo, he says he was tortured for two months to extract a $2,000 ransom from his family. “We thought it was like hell – I wished I would die.” Despite the regular beatings, he felt worse for women who were dragged into the bush and raped. Some were sold into debt bondage, prostitution and forced marriage.
We tracked down a veteran trafficker who works in a large syndicate. Speaking to us anonymously, she described how operations run by Thai and Malaysian businessmen move thousands of refugees through the country each year. If boats from Burma are intercepted by Thai authorities, she says they can easily be paid off. And if traffickers are arrested by the authorities, huge profits mean they have plenty of money to buy their way out of trouble. “Even if it costs a million to get out, you can pay,” she asserts.
In June, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to its worst ranking in its annual report on human trafficking and slavery for failing to meet a “minimum standard” in combatting the trade. The commander of immigration police in the south of the county, Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot, acknowledged the problem, but says he is yet to find “good evidence” of corruption in his ranks. Although he has led raids on camps and arrested traffickers, he adds that the bosses are buffered by low-level operatives who do the dirty work. Moreover, they have adapted by shifting operations deeper into the jungles that straddle the Thai-Malaysia border.
Life in the shadows
On a recent trip into the bush, we saw heaps of soiled clothing, empty rice sacks and bamboo shafts used for beatings littered the ground. Abdul Kalam, a Rohingya activist who works to free captive refugees, explained that many of the enforcers in the camps are Rohingya that have sold out their own.
The few who manage to escape must keep a careful lookout for Thais – including local Muslims, who are ready to tip off traffickers for a price. Indeed, in one border village, a Thai Muslim man who has hosted Rohingya refugees in a hidden basement room estimated that 70 percent of his neighbours were involved in the trafficking business.
People thought that because Rohingya are Muslim and Malaysia is a Muslim country, they would get more favour than other refugees. No, totally not at all.
Abdul Hamid, head of the Rohingya Association in Malaysia
In the harrowing world of Rohingya trafficking, Nur Anquis, a boat refugee from Sittwe, was lucky: her parents raised the ransom money to secure her release from a jungle camp, and she made it to Malaysia. However, there was not enough to free her husband, Ahmed Khan. When we tracked him down, five months after he had been rounded up in a police raid, he was stuck in a Thai detention centre. He told us he is fed just once a day and living in quarters so cramped that some are developing beriberi, a crippling disease caused by vitamin deficiency. He fears paralysis and longs to be reunited with his wife, but claims the United Nations High Commission on Refugees has ignored him.
For her part, Nur Anquis says she applied for UN registration and has not heard back. Like countless other Rohingya, she lives in the shadows to avoid detention and harassment from police known to shakedown refugees for bribes.
“People thought that because Rohingya are Muslim and Malaysia is a Muslim country, they would get more favour than other refugees. No, totally not at all,” laments Abdul Hamid, the head of the Rohingya Association in Malaysia, a group that assists refugees. He notes that Malaysia has no laws to protect refugees, and of the 90,000 estimated to be in the country, less than 40,000 are registered by the UN, denying them access to good jobs, schools and health care.
Richard Towle, UNHCR’s representative in Malaysia, counters that his organisation is doing the best it can given the increasing volume of refugees pouring into the country and paltry resources available. “We’re not a government and we are not a state. We are a temporary surrogate for state responsibility,” he says, explaining that UN officers must perform triage to identify the most vulnerable. “It’s not a perfect system,” he concedes.
With xenophobic currents on the rise across Burma, the inflow of refugees is not about to slow anytime soon. The government refuses to recognise them as citizens and there is still no talk of Rohingya returning home. Relief supplies and doctors remain scant in the camps, and barracks are now under construction to house more guards to keep the Rohingya penned in. Indeed, Buddhist politicians in Rahkine state are discussing a possible camp expansion. Abdul Hamid warns that if this kind of persecution continues “for one or two more years’ time, there will be no more Rohingya living in Myanmar.”
As the bad weather begins to break, boat builders in Sittwe are getting ready for the next wave of travellers. Mohammad Idriss will be among those heading out. Fully aware of the risks at sea and the gauntlet of traffickers that stand between him and Malaysia, he says that after two years of waiting, “it’s only getting worse.” There is no choice left than to go “to the other side.”