Desperation drives more Rohingya onto smugglers' boats
As irregular boat departures hit record highs, families left behind in Bangladesh's refugee camps speak of the high risks involved.
COX'S BAZAR, Bangladesh, January 22 (UNHCR) - They sail in search of safety, education, a better life, a future. But many die along the way. Those who survive face the prospect of detention, bonded labour or furtive lives as undocumented workers in an alien country.
In 2012, an estimated 13,000 people - among them the Rohingya from western Myanmar as well as Bangladeshi nationals - left the Bay of Bengal on smugglers' boats. Given the rough seas and often rickety condition of the boats, many never made it to their destination. Some 485 people are reported to have drowned in four boat accidents in the Bay of Bengal, though the real death toll is believed to be much higher.
So why are more and more Rohingya taking the dangerous voyage? Many of the Rohingya in Bangladesh say that while life was always hard in exile, the inter-communal violence back home in Myanmar last June and October dashed any hope for a solution to their protracted situation.
"Life was tough in Myanmar, and it's tough here," said Aisha, who fled persecution in western Myanmar's northern Rakhine state 20 years ago and sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. "That's why my husband and my brother went to Malaysia - to find a better life."
Azu Mehir, 48, said her 20-year-old son Shab Uddin wanted to study more English but was frustrated by government restrictions on secondary education in Bangladesh's two official refugee camps, Kutupalong and Nayapara. "He was a good student but he got frustrated and left," she said. "We looked everywhere for him. After 13 days, I got a call."
The call can be a blessing or a curse. For refugee families who thought their men were lost at sea, it brings the good news that they are still alive. For parents who didn't even know their children had hopped on a smuggler's boat, it is practically a death knell.
Sara cries when she talks about her 17-year-old son, who secretly left with three friends on a boat in mid-November. "The smugglers called to say they are holding him in Thailand," she wept in Kutupalong camp. "They beat him two times every day, now his body is swollen. They want us to pay 175,000 taka [more than US$2,160] to the agent in Bangladesh or they will kill him."
Aisha's husband and brother are also being detained by smugglers in Thailand. "They didn't tell me before they left," she said. "If I'd known, I would've stopped them from going." There are reports that smuggled men whose families cannot make the required payment are sold to fishing boats where they could work many months to pay off the debt.
While it is mostly single young men who make the journey, the clandestine nature of these irregular movements makes it hard to ascertain how many are Rohingya who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh over the years, how many fled the recent violence back home, and how many are Bangladeshi.
There are also reports that women and children are joining the ranks. In Kutupalong camp, a woman approached UNHCR to say that her son-in-law had arranged for his wife and child to be smuggled to join him in Malaysia. But she later received a call from a smuggler asking for money for their release.
Even those who make it to Malaysia do not have it easy. Fatama Hatun's husband left their home in Bangladesh's Leda makeshift site eight months ago. From Malaysia, he sent money home twice but the money stopped coming in October. Fatama has not heard from him since, but heard he had been arrested for not having documents.
Azu's son, Shab, is now working on a construction site in Malaysia. "It is difficult for a frail young boy to carry heavy sacks of cement," she said. "He works every two days because he cannot take the heavy work. After working the whole day, he gets 40 ringgit (US$13). But he needs to buy food and share a place with others. I don't think he is saving any money."
But that has not stopped him from dreaming of greener pastures. "If he had known life was so hard in Malaysia, he wouldn't have gone," his mother said. "But now he'll try to go somewhere else."
While the men may not hesitate to risk their lives for the vague possibility of a brighter future, they leave their loved ones behind to fend for themselves. "Life has been miserable since he left," said Fatama as her husband sits in an immigration detention centre awaiting UNHCR intervention. At 25, she is now responsible for their two children. "I beg for a living but I don't know what we will do in future."
Aisha, too, can barely support her family in Bangladesh. There is no way she can raise the 150,000 taka needed for her husband's release in Thailand. "After he left, we are suffering a lot because of the poverty," she said. "My son is not even nine, but he goes to the villages to pick up recycled items and sells them in the market."
As the cycle of poverty, persecution and desperation deepens, the Rohingya are becoming even more vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous smugglers. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, they may see no other option but to go with the flow, wherever it takes them.
*Names changed for protection reasons
By Vivian Tan in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh