Malaysia: Rohingya refugees left with nowhere to go

Salima Nora Ahmad, a 25-year-old Rohingya woman who rejoined her husband, who left Burma six years earlier, in Malaysia. When sh

Jani Alam, a 25-year-old, is walking slow and painfully. Having slightly swollen feet, this “exercise” is the only treatment available from 60-year-old traditional doctor, Guramia Saiyid.

Both Alam and Saiyad are stateless refugees from the Rohingya ethnic minority from Arakan state in western Burma. They now live in Malaysia.

Saiyad has lived in the country for 11 years, while Alam has arrived four months ago.

“In the past months, dozens of refugees arrived almost every day,” said 41-year-old Jamar Udin, a neighbor and also a Rohingya.

Udin said many of the newly arrived have difficulty walking due to a lack of exercise.

Fleeing by boat

It was last November that Alam got on the boat in Bangladesh, to where he crossed Naf River from Arakan State. He hardly stretched or moved his legs for months.

During the seven-day journey from Bangladesh to the shores of Thailand shore, two-to-three people died a day, he said. After he arrived at the Thai shore, smugglers used a Toyota pickup truck, in which Alam and others were stacked atop one another. It was near perfection conditions for suffocation.

After terrible ordeals, survivors were dropped off at Penang the northwest coast of Malaysia.

“Rakhine Buddhists armed with arrows, machetes and sticks came to our village to destroy everything,” Alam said of the situation he fled.

“NASAKA [the border police in Arakan State] just watched … My both parents succumbed to their bullet wounds after three days.”

Alam described the first wave of Buddhist riots in Soparan village in one of the two townships in which the Arakan State government has imposed its notorious “two child limit” policy. The violence quickly turned to be a massacre against Rohingya in June last year.

As he saw the second wave of riots in October, when the targets were expanded to Kaman Muslims who, unlike the Rohingyas are recognized citizens, Alam decided to leave the country.

Among thousands of victims of the October riots was 48-year-old Salim Bin Gulban, a Kaman business man, who arrived at Malaysia in mid-January. Salim saw security forces set a fire to six boats in Kyawkpyu on October 23, as he rushed to quay in a bid to flee by boat.

People managed to hurriedly got on remained boats to flee.

Salim and 74 others fled the country on his boat. They have made a direct journey from Arakan to Malaysia with little trouble, unlike Rohingya boat people who normally rely on smugglers.

“We met the Indian navy four days after departure,' he said. “They helped us to direct the way for Malaysia and also have given us drinking water.”

Salim’s troupe arrived on Malaysian shores, where the Malaysian Navy found them and brought them to Lankawi. They were provided food and health check-up at first. Some, including Salim, have been released into community after an interview with UNHCR in May.

According to the UNHCR, about 20,000 people (13,000 last year and 7000 in the first two months of this year) fled Burma by sea since the religious riots broke out June last year. These figures are unprecedented.

It was an utterly dark night in April 2011 when Salima got on the boat in Maungdaw in Arakan state with eight others. Although she fled the country before last years massacre, she was absolutely convinced that life as a Rohingya in Burma was not worth living.

Her husband, 25-year-old Mohamad Tandamia, had already left for Malaysia in 2006, where Salima was hoping to join her husband.

“We have no citizenship, no freedom of movement,” Tandamia said. “And government grabbed our land where I built a house. So I left.”

Salima had waited three days in the Teknaf Bangladesh border town until getting on a fishing boat to travel into international seas in the Bay of Bengal. There, she moved from to a bigger vessel with a capacity to hold 50 people. When it departed, there were 250 people on board.

The captain was Bangladesh and the crew were mainly Thai, Salima said. They were all armed. Salima hardly stretched her legs for 18 days. During the trip, 18 people died.

“14 people were suffocated to death at the bottom of the boat,” Salima said. “The other four were thrown overboard by crews because they asked water. All were young men.”

Among the refugees I interviewed, allegations of people asking for water being thrown overboard for asking for water were common. There were also many allegations of women being raped by the crew.

Fourty-one-year-old Nurul Hessen, who left Burma in January, said rape often occurred on the boat he fled on, which carried 750 people.

“The crew ordered women to stay upper deck, where no one was allowed to be,” Hessen said. “We heard rape sounds very often.”

Like many making the journey, Hessen believed that the boat was heading to Malaysia. However, their boats reached a Thai shore and the human traffickers kicked them off.

Uniformed men

In every interviewees’ accounts, there were “uniformed men” who received the boats, or were called by the smugglers when the boat arrived at Thailand.

From there, the refugees were taken through the jungle to a main camp, where they were released after finalising a deal. Smugglers called the refugees’ family or friends in Malaysia to demand 5500-6000 ringgit (about $2000).

Tandamia remember the moment he received a call for the money so his wife could join him in Malaysia. It took 14 days for him to borrow the needed money.

Who were the “uniformed men” met at sea? The most obvious answer the Thai Navy, which has been implicated in cases involving the smuggling of Rohningya refugees in recent years.

In 2009, the Thai navy forcibly removed the engine of a Rohingya boat before pushing back them to the sea. In February 22, reports suggested that the Thai Navy shot at Rohingya refugees who refused to get into Thai Navy boats. Two people were reportedly killed.

The latter case resembled to the Samila’s accounts, in which she and other refugees were transported by small boats under the command of the “uniformed men”.

In response to an email, the Thai Navy denied the allegation. It said: “In case of detecting for the Rohingya boat if the vessel is located outside the territorial sea, Naval officer will conduct humanitarian assistance by providing food, water and make recommendations for direction to go on.

“If Rohingya people are trying to enter the territorial sea, they will be forwarded to the relevant authorities. The whole procedure are based on the humanitarian principles of law.”

Chris Lewa, the director of Arakan Project, which approaches the matter carefully, said: “It’s very difficult to know who they are.

“To be honest I have no clear evidence that Thai authority involved in trafficking. But I’m almost convinced that it could be some sort of militia.”

Lewa said: “In terms of past atrocities such as ‘pushing back the boat to the sea, they won’t do this without receiving order from high level of command.”

At the hands of smugglers, Rohingya asylum seekers went through terrible ordeal in the jungle camp.

“If we made sounds, the agents would torture us,” Alam said. “They pulled someone’s teeth out.”

While he was in jungle, he said 10 people were killed, including four trying to escape.

Alam spent almost two months there, as he had no one in Malaysia to pay the smugglers. Finally, his uncle in Burma helped him out.

As for Hessen, he was lucky to be released after four days thanks to a friend in Malaysia. When he left the jungle camp, there were about 300 refugees remaining.

What would happen to those who couldn’t pay? It’s highly likely that they would be sold out to Thai fishing boats as modern slaves. The US State Department’s annual report of Trafficking In Person (TIP) released on June 20 states: "There were reports that some Rohingya asylum seekers transiting Thailand on route to Malaysia were sold into forced labor on Thai fishing boats, reportedly with the assistance of Thai military officials.’’

Nowhere to go

After paying the smugglers and finally reaching Malaysia, the refugees hoped they would be, at least, safer from violence.

But in recent weeks, this hope has looked shaky with violence breaking out between Burmese migrant communities in Malaysia.

On June 11, Burma’s deputy minister of foreign affairs Zin Yaw departed for Malaysia to provide protection for who he called, “our Burmese”.

It is difficult to believe the deputy minister included Rohingya, denied Burmese citizenship, count as for “his Burmese”.

A day after Malaysia’s announcement of the repatriation of Burmese migrants, president of Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia Zafar Ahmad said in a phone interview; “I’ve just got information that one Rohingya was killed hours ago in Ampang area in Kuala Lumpur. But I can’t go there now out of fear.”

Ahmad said: “There’s no place we can move freely. Not in Burma now in Malaysia.”

This is echoed by Lewa, who has researched Rohingya issues for more than six years: “They have nowhere to go. No one wants them in the region.

“I want [the media] to more highlight dire situation in Arakan state rather than highlighting smuggling issues. If you see the condition where they live in Arakan, oh my god, you gonna be on a boat.”

Nurul Islam, a 14 year old boy is Kaman refugee. Kaman are recognsed as one of 135 "national races", unlike the stateless Rohingya. However, they are also targeted by Buddhist extremists. Nurul got on an asylum boat with his uncle at his mother’s request. Photo by Lee Yu Kyung

Due to lack of exercise during the journey by smugglers’ boat, Jani has difficulty for walking. He’s getting a "snake oil" massage by Rohingyan traditional doctor, Guramia Saiyid, who is also a refugee. Photo by Lee Yu Kyung

Jani walking for exercise. Photo by Lee Yu Kyung

(Above and below) Mohamad Rafik, a 17-year-old Rohingya refugee, reenacts the pose that he had to maintain during the journey by smugglers’ boat. Photo by Lee Yu Kyung

Photo by Lee Yu Kyung