Current News

    Rohingya refugees import ‘mail-order’ brides

    Young
    men who have found refuge in Malaysia after fleeing violence in Myanmar are
    covertly getting brides from home.
    Many
    ethnic Rohingya who make the journey over to Malaysia are young men [Reuters]

    Al
    Jazeera:
    March
    17, 2013

    Cox’s
    Bazaar, Bangladesh
     – Shamsul Alam, has dabbled as a tailor’s
    assistant and construction worker since fleeing to Malaysia from his native
    Rakhine State in Myanmar.

    He
    recalls bitterly his gruelling 12-14 hour work days on construction sites
    before grabbing a quick meal and dashing off to the highlands in the hopes of
    evading the authorities.

    But
    when he speaks about his intentions to marry, the 30-some year old Rohingya
    becomes much more poetic: “If a man wants to live, he must have a
    woman…People need companions to live on this earth.”

    However,
    his dream to marry has been difficult. As young Rohingya men like Alam have
    settled into life in Malaysia, to which a steady trickle of Rohingya refugees
    has been fleeing, they’ve been presented with a unique twist on a common
    dilemma: where to find a suitable bride.

    Their
    perceived low social status has made it particularly difficult to secure
    brides.

    “There’s
    a big gap socially between a Rohingya man and a Malay woman,” says Chris
    Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy organisation for the
    Rohingya community. “The father of a Malay woman would not want to give
    his daughter to a stateless groom.”

    As
    a result, the demand for brides is creating a new phenomenon: the Rohingya
    version of the mail-order bride.


    Sending
    back for a bride

    The stateless Rohingya, described by the UN Refugee Agency as the most
    persecuted minority in the world, face restrictions in their native Myanmar
    on where they can travel, who they can marry, and how many children they can
    have.


    Of
    the 30,000 refugees who have fled ethnic
    violence in their home state for Malaysia, the majority of those braving the
    treacherous boat journey have been young, single men.

    “In the past many Rohingya men in Malaysia married undocumented
    Indonesian or Burmese Muslim women,” Lewa says. “But from 2009 it
    became more common to send a Rohingya bride from their village by air.”

    Activists and refuges estimate that hundreds of Rohingya brides have been
    sent over since 2009, with 67 making the trip last year.

    “In our camp there has been many men who went over [to Malaysia] who
    have since been in touch to say ‘hey, send me a woman to marry’,” says
    Deen Mohammed, a refugee living in Leda camp in Cox’s Bazaar in southeast
    Bangladesh.

    So-called brokers and family members back in Myanmar and the refugee camps in
    Bangladesh look out for potential female mates. Once the right woman is
    found, several deals are struck.

    The suitor – or often his parents – then come to an agreement with the
    bride-to-be’s parents, which can involve monthly payments or a lump-sum
    figure. The girl herself is rarely consulted.

    Arrangements must then be made with the brokers – who then arrange the fake
    passports, tickets, and other documentation for the girl and her companion
    who often pose as her husband to get her through the scrutiny of immigration
    officials.


    From
    sea to the sky

    One factor spurring the growth of the number of brides being flown over is
    the change in Thailand’s attitude towards refugee boats.

    Having previously turned a blind eye, In 2009, Thailand – a key passage for
    onward travel to Malaysia – began to push refugee boats back to sea, leaving
    their passengers vulnerable to risks of dehydration and death. This shift
    coincided with a boom in low-cost air travel in Asia, with airlines like
    AirAsia adding hundreds of routes in 2008.

    Parents unwilling to risk their daughter’s lives by sending them on a small
    boat seem to be more receptive to the notion of dispatching them by air,
    opening the door for lonely men like Alam to spend his savings on a bride, a
    broker, and their plane tickets.

    Somewhat ironically, the cost of bringing a bride to Malaysia by boat is now
    more expensive than by air, according to Deen Mohammed.

    “For the boat, the brokers charge more for the women than they do for
    the men, about $2,280”, he says. “The plane ticket costs about
    $1,500, getting a fake passport and other documents costs about $250.”

    He explained, however, that many refugees don’t have the luxury of
    choice.

    “Many of the refugees aren’t able to make the arrangements to go by
    plane…Not everyone is able to get a passport and other documents.”


    Uncertain
    future

    Syed
    Karim, a refugee in Bangladesh who is preparing to send his daughter by boat
    to get married in Malaysia, is realistic about the situation.

    “I just know that I’m supposed send the money I get [from the groom] to
    a specific place, and then someone will come take her. I don’t know who he
    is, but I know his name,” Karim says.

    “Of course I’m scared about what might happen to her. She’s a single
    girl by herself, she’s 21 years old. She’s worried about how she is going to
    reach her fiancé.”


    Such
    trips can end in tragedy. Just a few days earlier, two Rohingya brides en
    route to Malaysia by boat from Cox’s Bazaar drowned in choppy waters,
    Mohammed says.

    But uncertainty is a hallmark not just of the travel, but also of the life
    after it.

    Mohammed recounted the story of a girl who went to marry a man in Malaysia
    who it turned out already had a wife and two children. The marriage was
    called off and the girl was stranded.

    “For a month her parents heard nothing from her at all, had no idea how
    she was surviving, until finally she was able to call them to let them know
    that she had managed to find another husband.”

    Lewa also voices fears about the future of the girls, many of whom she says
    are underage.

    “The women are there at the mercy of their husband. It’s hard to talk to
    them – the husband is afraid to allow her out because he is afraid she could
    be arrested.

    “NGOs have raised concerns about high levels of domestic violence in the
    Rohingya community. At least in a village in Burma you have relatives or
    village elders to turn to,” Lewa says. “Stateless young brides in
    an alien country are particularly vulnerable to abuses by state authorities
    and locals, but also by their own refugee community.”