• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Desperation drives more Rohingya onto smugglers' boats

News Stories, 22 January 2013

Dire living conditions in a place like Bangladesh's Leda makeshift site have contributed to the Rohingya leaving on dangerous boat journeys in the hope of finding a more stable life elsewhere.

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




UNHCR country pages

Desperation on the Andaman Sea

For days, they were an undertow, an unseen tide of people adrift in the Andaman Sea. UNHCR and its partners had warned that thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis were held captive at sea, then abandoned as their crew fled government crackdowns on smuggling and trafficking networks.

Then a green boat surfaced on TV, packed with emaciated men, crying women and sick children, all dehydrated, hungry and desperate. It gave a face to the problem, then vanished overnight. After five days drifting between the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia, some 400 people on board were finally rescued by Indonesian fishermen in the early hours of May 20.

They are among more than 3,000 lucky ones who have been able to come ashore since May 10 in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, where UNHCR is helping to assess their needs. Thousands more could still be stranded at sea. In a welcome statement on May 20, the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to bring these vulnerable people to shore - a move that will hopefully end the long nightmare at sea.

Desperation on the Andaman Sea

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding across Myanmar's Rakhine state, where some 115,000 people are desperately in need of aid after being displaced during two waves of inter-communal violence in June and October 2012. The displaced, most of them ethnic Rohingya, have sought shelter in temporary relief camps and others remain scattered across the state, living under tight security in their destroyed villages. Conditions are harsh: the camps are overcrowded and some lack even the most basic of sanitation facilities while many of the villages are totally destroyed and running low on water. In one village, more than 32 families were living cheek-by-jowl in just two large tents. The children have no access to education and the newborn and elderly are in a very vulnerable position due to a lack of medical facilities. UNHCR is distributing relief supplies and working with the authorities and partners to improve camp conditions, but international assistance is required.

Myanmar IDPs pick up the pieces in Rakhine state

Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

"Living Silence" is a photographic exhibition of one of the world's most enduring refugee crises, by award-winning photographer Saiful Huq Omi.

Bangladesh has hosted refugees for over three decades. Today, 28,000 refugees from Myanmar known as the Rohingya - an ethnic, religious and linguistic minority people - are living in the two official refugee camps in the south-east of Bangladesh. Over half of them are children, many of whom have only ever experienced life in the camps. It is estimated that there are a further 200,000 Rohingya living outside the camps, unable to return to Myanmar where they fear persecution and exploitation.

Like refugees around the world, the Rohingya refugees are survivors. They are living in transience, waiting for the day they can go home in safety and in dignity. Until then, like any other people, they aspire to live a life free from violence and exploitation.

Together with other UN agencies and NGOs, UNHCR provides shelter, water, primary education and health care to refugees from Myanmar in the Nayapara and Kutupalong camps. UNHCR is also working with governments around the world to resettle some of the most vulnerable.

Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Displaced women sew up a future in Kachin campPlay video

Displaced women sew up a future in Kachin camp

Conflict in Myanmar's Kachin state has displaced tens of thousands. In the town of Laiza, UNHCR is helping women in Hpun Lum Yang camp to learn tailoring skills as part of a pilot project to foster cohesion among IDP women in the camp and help them find solutions for the practical problems they and their community face.
Myanmar: Olympic Spirit AlivePlay video

Myanmar: Olympic Spirit Alive

The International Olympic Committee and Samsung recently presented sports kits to 20 schools in south-east Myanmar. The lucky children were happy to show off their skills.
Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugees Play video

Bangladesh: Rohingya Refugees

Living in limbo for years has pushed some Rohingyas to risk everything in search of a better life.