Current News

Desperation drives more Rohingya onto smugglers’ boats

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.


Source By UNHCR:


COX’S
BAZAR, Bangladesh, January 22 (UNHCR) – They sail in searchof
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