From Myanmar to Bangladesh to oblivion: the new wave of misery crashing over the Rohingya

Forced to flee their homeland, 750,000 Muslims have been enduring the appalling conditions of Cox's Bazar camp in Bangladesh. But finding another new home is fraught with danger

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Stuffing an extra pair of clothes into a dusty plastic bag along with a small box of rice, Mohammed Riyaz, 20, said goodbye to his family.

“Pray for me,” he told his ageing mother Salama, and kissed his one-year old son Omar Farooq.

His wife Sadiya, 18, wept quietly inside their shanty home as her husband disappeared into a maze of makeshift tents in the sprawling refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

That was the last they saw of Riyaz, who left Bangladesh in November on a rickety boat to Malaysia with his cousin Sadiq.

We could either die in the camp or die in the sea. We chose the latter
Nur Khaida, who escaped Cox's Bazar for Indonesia

The two Rohingya men are thought to have died when they jumped off the boat in desperation after being stranded in the Andaman Sea for weeks.

Their engine had stopped working a few days into the journey and they were adrift for weeks without food and water.

The conditions on board were tortuous.

About 140 people who survived the journey landed in Indonesia’s Aceh province. Repeated calls by international bodies to rescue the boat were ignored by India, Malaysia and Thailand.

“I don’t know what to do with my life,” an inconsolable Sadiya told The National over the phone from Cox’s Bazar.

“He wanted to build a new life and support his family. He had promised to bring me and his mother over to Malaysia once he got a job.

“I cannot even cry loudly because his mother still lives in the hope of seeing her son. Now, I have to take care of my son, but how?”

Riyaz and his cousin add to the gruesome statistics of the increasing number of Rohingya who have perished after embarking on the treacherous sea journey into the Bay of Bengal, then south to the Andaman Sea.

They pay about $5,000 — in a country where many earn $2 per day — to a well-oiled team of human traffickers who promise to take them to Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand.

According to the UN High Commission For Refugees, 350 people died or went missing in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal last year.

"Confirmed reports are only the tip of the iceberg," the UNHCR said, noting that, in most cases, bodies are not found and missing people go unreported.

"There is a dramatic increase in the number of people attempting the crossing of the Andaman Sea this year."

More than 3,500 desperate Rohingya attempted deadly sea crossings in 39 boats last year, mainly from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

This represents a 360 per cent increase on the year before, said the UN body.

Refugee camps becoming hotbeds of crime

Cox’s Bazar in south-east Bangladesh is the world’s largest refugee settlement, hosting nearly 1.2 million people accommodated in 34 overcrowded camps run by local and international NGOs.

About 750,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar in 2017 to escape persecution and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the military. Human rights groups have described their treatment as genocide.

They were already 250,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, who had settled in the host country. The ethnic Muslim minority has no citizenship in Myanmar and is subjected to gross human rights violations.

The refugees have limited access to aid and no opportunities for education or livelihood. Efforts to repatriate them to Myanmar are in limbo, despite pacts signed between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2017.

But it is not sheer financial desperation and hopelessness that is driving many Rohingya to escape the camp life and attempt the high-risk sea journey.

The camps, teeming with jobless men, have become hotbeds of crime and drugs, according to many activists.

Cox’s Bazar’s police have recorded murder, rape, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking and drug dealing among the refugees.

Many Rohingya said they were forced to flee Bangladesh to escape the clutches of kidnappers and extortionists.

Nur Sadek, a 21-year-old Rohingya, told The National he was kidnapped and tortured for a week by members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Myanmar-based insurgent group fighting for the liberation of Rohingya.

Both Bangladesh law enforcement authorities and Rohingya families accuse the ARSA of perpetuating a climate of terror and violence in the camps.

“They stripped me naked, beat me up and starved me for days,” said Sadek, who spoke to The National by phone from Malaysia.

“There are forest areas surrounding the camps and they have turned it into their haunts.”

He was taken for campaigning on social media against the ARSA's campaign of terror.

He said the group let go of him after he falsely promised to pay 200,000 Bangladeshi taka ($1,900) for his release.

“I was working with an NGO at that time and I paid them one instalment. I knew they would come after me. So, I eventually decided to escape to Malaysia.”

Sixteen-day journey over land and sea

Sadek says there is a cross-national syndicate of traffickers involved that includes Rohingya, Bangladeshi, Malaysian and Burmese criminals.

Describing his 16-day arduous journey to Malaysia via Myanmar and Thailand, the man said he met a "dalal" (agent) in the camp who asked for $4,700.

“I packed a small bag with two pairs of clothes as he had instructed me. There were two other Rohingya women and three of us got into a small boat on the Naf river [on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border].

“There were coastguards but it was clear that the traffickers are well-connected.”

After a 90-minute journey, the boat reached Raimagona village in Muangdaw, Myanmar.

“We were received by a Burmese national and a Rohingya man. They took us to a nearby house where there were 13 other Rohingya waiting, including women and children,” said Sadek.

After two days, they were loaded into a truck covered with a tarpaulin.

“We travelled for more than three hours before we reached another house in Myanmar. We were shifted again to another shelter within two days.”

Sadek said the drill was repeated several times as they were handed over to agents.

“On these days, we were given biscuits and water. Finally, they divided us into smaller groups of five or six. There were three women and an elderly man in my group.”

What followed were days of walking through forests and boat rides with new agents at every point.

“We took a bus to Yangon. And after that, I remember walking through the Burmese forests for two days at a stretch. We had only water and no food,” said Sadek.

At the Myanmar-Thailand border, Sadek said they crossed into Thailand’s Satun province through another jungle.

“I saw the worst things happening to those women there. They were taken away and possibly raped. I saw them crying afterwards.”

From Thailand, the journey continued in a lorry carrying vegetables for two more days. “We crossed a river in a fishing boat and finally reached Malaysia where a businessman received us," said Sadek. "My family had arranged for the money and they let me go. I don’t know what happened to those women.”

Sadek says it was worth it.

“I had a bleak future and no education in Bangladesh. At least now, I am pursuing my undergrad in computer science in Malaysia. I have hope,” he told The National.

They threatened to kill my son

Another Rohingya, Nur Khaida, told The National from Indonesia she made the decision to try escape Cox’s Bazar after kidnappers picked up her 10-year old son Raifat and demanded a ransom.

“They threatened to kill my son. I had to borrow and pay them 300,000 taka to free him.”

Her ordeal did not end there.

“There are many bad groups in the camp," she said. "They used to knock on my door and threaten to kidnap my younger son, too. Because my husband is in Australia, they said I have enough money and gold to pay. I was terrified, day and night.”

Khaida convinced her husband to pay human traffickers about $5,000 dollars and took a boat to Indonesia in June.

She left Bangladesh with six of her family members including her two sons.

The boat was packed with people and I thought we would drown. My children would cry from hunger and thirst. I have never felt so helpless in my life
Nur Khaida, mother of two

Describing the ordeal at sea, Khaida said they were adrift for two weeks.

“It was a small boat and there were 119 people on board including children and women.

“We were eating a small portion of rice once a day. Soon, the food and fresh water ran out. The boat was packed with people and I thought we would drown.

“My children were terrified and would cry from hunger and thirst. I have never felt so helpless in my life."

Khaida's family are staying in a shelter in Indonesia and she said she hoped the authorities would give her opportunity to work and send her children to school.

Dreams of getting married

According to Rohingya activists and NGOs, the majority of those who flee the camps are women. The dream of finding a husband in Malaysia or Indonesia is driving many to take the huge risk, said Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, 28, a Rohingya activist.

“Life inside these camps is like an open air prison,” he told The National.

His sister Hatemon Nesa and her five-year old daughter Umme Salima recently survived a perilous journey after their boat’s engine stopped working and they were adrift on the Andaman Sea for weeks.

Nesa is a single mother and Mr Khan said it was impossible for her to survive in the camp.

“Her husband was taken away by the Myanmar military many years ago and we don’t know what happened to him.

“There were various kinds of threats for my sister in the camp. She had seen tragedies in Myanmar that no other human beings should witness. The situation was equally bad in Bangladesh,” he said.

Nesa told her brother she wanted to take the risk for a better future.

“It has been more than five years and we are still trapped in the camp. We are getting food rations. But we have no jobs. No education. There is no future here,” said Khan, who earns a living by working for an NGO in the camp.

“All these years, we lived in the hope that someday we will be able to go back home. But that hope is dashed.”

Political impasse

As Bangladesh continues to shelter Rohingya, Myanmar has done little to allow their repatriation.

Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, chairman of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Committee in Bangladesh, said the process had not happened the way the government expected.

"In 2017, when we opened the doors for these people, we thought within a year or two we could repatriate them to Myanmar. But that did not happen," he said.

There is no ray of hope at the end of this tunnel
Mohammed Rahman, chairman of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Committee, Bangladesh

"People are growing frustrated. They have become a stateless. Losing one's homeland is an incomparable tragedy."

Mr Rahman said the political situation in Myanmar did not allow for any meaningful resolution, especially after the military coup in 2021.

"There is no ray of hope at the end of this tunnel," said the official.

Nay Sal Lwin, founder of Free Rohingya Coalition, an advocacy group, told The National that "all hopes have ended for the Rohingya".

Trapped in the camps

“The situation suggests that it [repatriation] is not going to happen any time soon. So, they are trapped in the camps forever," Mr Lwin said.

“If they go to Malaysia, they will have a better life. They can live in a good apartment and earn a good salary. This is the dream the traffickers are selling. So, these people who have no future in Bangladesh get easily convinced.”

Even if they are lucky enough to make it to Malaysia or Indonesia, said Mr Lwin, traffickers hold them in detention and extort more money from their relatives.

“They are beaten, tortured and raped. They are also detained by the Malaysian authorities. But they are willing to take all that risk. That is their level of desperation.”

He said thousands of Rohingya have migrated to other countries in the past and people pay traffickers with the help of their relatives.

“We have a population of about 300,000 in Saudi Arabia; 250,000 in Pakistan; about 50,000 in the UAE; 150,000 in Malaysia. There are also Rohingya in Europe and America. They help their families get out,” added Mr Lwin, who is based in Germany.

He said without opportunities for education, an entire generation of Rohingya was growing up in these camps.

"We are not asking to be integrated into their societies. But Rohingya children should be given education.

“Otherwise, it is another kind of genocide."

Updated: February 25, 2023, 7:08 AM