By Rachel Pannett
September 7, 2013
This account of a boat journey by a young couple from Myanmar offers a close-up look at a major issue facing the Asia-Pacific region today: the swelling tide of ships carrying refugees toward Australia. The trip is one of the longest, and most perilous, immigration journeys in the world. Yet the numbers keep rising, as more and more people from Asia’s poorest countries seek refuge in a nation many associate with freedom, wealth and a better life.
How to deal with the thousands of migrants on Asia’s seas will be a key dilemma for the new conservative government in Australia, which won office in a national election Saturday, ending six years of center-left rule.
Chapter One: Rising Tide
The rickety fishing boat lurched in the dark as big sea swells rose and fell around it. It was about 11 p.m. one night in late June.
On the open wooden deck huddled the men, including a phone seller, a student, a pharmaceutical salesman – and Mohammad Ayas, 26 years old, according to passengers’ accounts.
In the tiny hold below, women and children from nine families sat with folded legs. There was no room to stretch out, the passengers said. The oldest among them was 88. The youngest was just a few months old. Ateka Bagom, 19 years old and Mr. Ayas’s wife, was eight months pregnant with their first child. She was four months pregnant when the couple left home.
There were nearly 100 passengers on board – mostly Muslim refugees from Myanmar who feared for their lives at home because of sectarian violence there and were seeking a new life in Australia. They were sick and weary from six days at sea. But a mobile-phone locator put the boat not far off the coast of Darwin, a natural-gas hub on Australia’s north coast, passengers recalled later.
Then the engine sputtered and died. Mr. Ayas said he was praying for their safe arrival in Australia. Moments later, the engine started again. And, he said, in the distance, two lights appeared, blinking yellow and red.
“Ship!” someone yelled.
The decrepit, weather-beaten boat started to chug in the rolling ocean toward what those on board hoped was a Coast Guard patrol.
The boat carrying the couple and their unborn child was one of hundreds that, of late, have traversed hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of miles in search of asylum and a new life in Australia.
They are filled with migrants from as far away as Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Through perilous seas, they run a gauntlet of pirates and smugglers accused of picking off boat people and selling them into slavery in Thailand or holding them hostage until family members pay for their release.
- Associated Press
- An asylum seeker boat near Christmas Island before capsizing in 2010
Some don’t make it. At least five people drowned and 106 were rescued when a boat sank near the Australian territory of Christmas Island in August, according to Australian maritime authorities. Another boat capsized near the island in December 2010 killing 48 people, mainly from Iraq and Iran.
Yet the number of boats continues to climb: 269 have reached Australia so far this year, with 18,888 people on board, more than in all of 2012, which was itself a record.
The surge has been so dramatic that asylum seekers became a major issue in Australia’s national election on Sept. 7. Tony Abbott, whose Liberal-National coalition won Saturday’s election, has proposed using the Australian navy to intercept asylum boats and forcibly return them to other countries’ waters.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in July unveiled a radical plan to put migrants arriving by boat on Papua New Guinea or the tiny island of Nauru to be processed and resettled there.
Neither plan has done much to counter the country’s appeal for those determined to try: 44 boats carrying 3,057 passengers have reached Australia since mid-July.
“I heard Australia is a democracy where people have basic human rights and can study freely,” Mr. Ayas said in an interview.
A slim man with wavy black hair and dark stubble, Mr. Ayas grew up in the far reaches of western Myanmar, a place renowned for its harsh living conditions and poverty.
He was born into the country’s poor Muslim minority, which makes up about 5% of the population in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Some Myanmar Buddhists see these Rohingya, as they’re known, as illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The Buddhists also still resent what they see as preferential treatment that Muslims received while Myanmar was under British rule, when many Muslims were brought to the country from British India.
The Rohingya argue they’ve lived in Myanmar for generations and deserve equal status.
But laws drafted by Myanmar’s former military government in 1982 denied Rohingya basic liberties such as the right to hold passports or citizenship. Without those rights, their access to education is limited. So is their freedom to move around the country outside Rakhine state in western Myanmar, where most live.
Numerous human rights groups have tracked discrimination against Rohingya in recent years, including a series of reports by New York-based group Human Rights Watch that described mass arrests of Rohingya and destruction of Rohingya property. Myanmar’s central government has denied specifically targeting Rohingya for ill treatment, though it repeats that Rohingya residents are not citizens and therefore do not enjoy all the same rights as other residents.
In contrast to the fortunes of many Rohingya, Mr. Ayas’s father was a successful small-businessman. Kobir Amad, 60, traveled regularly to neighboring Bangladesh to trade household goods and do odd jobs.
- Rachel Pannett/The Wall Street Journal
- Mohammad Ayas
The family owned lakes where they raised prawns and rice paddies which they leased to tenant workers, along with a small grocery store in Maungdaw, a township in Rakhine state, Mr. Ayas said.
Mr. Ayas lived with his parents and five siblings in a two-story wooden house in a small village near Maungdaw.
When he was a teenager, his father gave him a small motorcycle for the 20-minute ride to Maungdaw from his village. To pass the time, he’d watch Bollywood films at the local movie theater. He especially liked intricately woven family sagas and tales of people who worked their way up in the world.
At family events like weddings and birthdays, he would sometimes see his cousin, Ateka Bagom, a pretty young woman who spoke in a soft voice. She had black hair and a round face. She was shy, he remembered, but beautiful even as a girl.
He first met her soon after she was born, at the start of Myanmar’s rainy season in May 1994, when he was seven years old, and his mother urged him to stay in touch.
In 2006, Mr. Ayas said, his family bribed local authorities to let him graduate from the local high school —something many Rohingya say they are unable to do because they don’t have citizenship.
Win Myaing, a spokesman for Rakhine state, said that the government has allowed Rohingya to gain an education. “We do not prohibit them from attending school, university and matriculation exams,” he said.
He denied that local officials accept bribes from Rohingya in exchange for letting them attend school: “If officials are found guilty of corruption, this would be published as an official corruption case and made available to the public.”
A government-led commission studying the status of Rohingya said in a report released in April that bribery and corruption was common among local authorities, who often accepted payoffs from Rohingya for favorable treatment.
Mr. Ayas said he went on to study botany at Sittwe University, in the capital of Rakhine. He taught himself to speak English by reading the Oxford English Dictionary and practicing with friends over coffee and samosas at a tea shop, he recalled.
Mr. Ayas said he had to convince border police to let him travel from his village in western Myanmar to Sittwe to attend university. He said it took him six years to complete his undergraduate degree–twice as long as usual, as he regularly missed exams because Rohingya weren’t allowed to move freely around Rakhine state.
Sittwe University President Tin Maung Tun said the university does not prohibit Rohingya from studying there, though they need approval from border security forces to travel to Sittwe from other parts of Rakhine State to do so, he said.
In past years as many as 400 Rohingya studied at the university, he said, but this year there are none because of the sectarian conflict, which has made it harder for Rohingya to travel freely. Many have also lost their travel documents and student cards in the riots, he said, making it difficult to get past security checkpoints.
At university, Mr. Ayas said, Rohingya couldn’t use the school canteen or walk on the waterfront in the seaside town outside of certain limited hours.
Mr. Tin Maung Tun said all students were given equal access to university facilities such as the school canteen.
Mr. Ayas studied botany not because he was interested in plants but because it was assigned to him by officials at the university, he said.
He began scouring radio reports and television for details on life outside Myanmar, and discussed with friends countries that offered a new life for refugees such as Australia, the U.S., New Zealand and Switzerland.
He graduated in March last year. The family hired a camera to take pictures of him in his graduation gown, posing in gardens near the university and outside the sports grounds where he played volleyball. He was the first member of his family to graduate from college.
After the ceremony, he celebrated by going to see his favorite film: “Titanic.”
He planned to open a small shop in the same lane where his father had a grocery store in Maungdaw. But fresh trouble was brewing as sectarian violence erupted.
After years under a harsh military regime, Myanmar was opening up to the outside world for the first time in decades, with a new reformist government helmed mainly by former military officers elected in 2010.
Led by President Thein Sein, the government relaxed censorship of the press and social media, and loosened restrictions on public gatherings.
Although foreign leaders applauded those moves, and eased sanctions on Myanmar, the opening gave residents greater leeway to foment anti-Rohingya sentiment on websites and in public.
Hard-line Buddhist monks referred to minority Muslims as “dogs” and “parasites” in social media and advocated efforts to marginalize them. Clashes in Rakhine left more than 250,000 people displaced and more than 200 dead.
In July last year, Buddhist mobs looted and torched Mr. Ayas’s father’s store in Maungdaw, he said. His father, along with dozens of local men of his age, were rounded up by border security forces, seemingly at random, and thrown into prison, Mr. Ayas said.
- AFP/Getty Images
- A street with destroyed buildings after sectarian violence in Sittwe, June 2012
Those whose families could afford to pay big bribes to police were released, he said. For those that couldn’t, the men were never seen again, Mr. Ayas said.
Mr. Win Myaing, the state government spokesman, said, “I did not hear that about men in their 50s and 60s being arrested” in Maungdaw. He said many people who were displaced during that time still live in camps administered by international aid groups across the state, but their numbers have not been officially counted by the government.
The government-led report released in April detailed incidents of looting and torching. It found both Rohingya and Buddhists were responsible for bouts of violence last year that “deepened the climate of mistrust and blame.” The government imposed a curfew in several areas, including Maungdaw, that’s still in place today, to prevent riots from spreading, and government officials have said they have worked hard to maintain stability.
The family paid police more than $5,000 to free his father from prison, according to Mr. Ayas. His father later fled to neighboring Bangladesh, fearing for his life, Mr. Ayas said.
Mr. Win Myaing denied that local officials accept bribes from Rohingya in exchange for letting them out of jail.
By early August last year, as Muslims around the world geared up for Eid al-Fitr – the four-day festival that marks the end of the Ramadan fast – Rakhine was in lockdown. A curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. was placed on Muslims.
Later that month, while Mr. Ayas was in Sittwe, violence broke out again. This time, Mr. Ayas said, Buddhist mobs doused local children in petrol and threw them onto bonfires. Local authorities denied the claims. Many among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority say Rohingya residents started some of the violence of the past year and in any event are living illegally in the country.
There was at least one good day, though: On Oct. 29, he wed his cousin, Ateka Bagom, in a modest affair attended only by members of their close family. Soon after the wedding, she became pregnant – and the young couple began planning their escape.
Early this year, Mr. Ayas said, he took his wife aside at his mother’s wooden home. Together they decided the risk of a perilous boat journey to Australia was worth it.
- Rachel Pannett/The Wall Street Journal
- Mohammad Ayas and Aketa Bagom
Others in the community had used agents who arranged boat transfers to other countries for a price ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
To raise money, the couple sold a stash of gold worth about $10,000 that they were given for their wedding and cashed in about $4,000 that Mr. Ayas’s father had given him to set up a shop.
Mr. Ayas said he found a local people-smuggling agent through friends and paid an initial $1,000 for two spots on a boat departing Maungdaw on March 3. It was bound for one of a number of remote Thai islands controlled by people-smugglers.
From there the couple would be plugged into a network of agents that would arrange onward passage to Australia for a few thousand dollars more, Mr. Ayas said he was told. All in, the journey from Myanmar would cost nearly $7,400, he said.
Efforts to identify and locate agents used by Mr. Ayas and other refugees heading to Australia were unsuccessful.
For Ms. Ateka, whose mother died when she was seven, there was little to leave behind in Myanmar.
Her father left for Malaysia in search of a better life before she was born.
She was sent to live at an uncle’s house where she spent a joyless childhood carrying out chores to pay for her upkeep. She has a deep scar on her chin from when, as an 8-year-old, she fell while carrying a heavy bucket of water as part of her chores, according to an account given by Ms. Ateka, who speaks in a regional Rohingya dialect, and translated for The Wall Street Journal by her husband.
Among her few pleasures were sewing and fashion. She had dozens of colorful dresses, many of which they donated to charity as they prepared for the boat trip.
They packed their five best shirts and blouses, several pairs of pants and skirts, a few changes of underwear, and some packets of dried noodles and fruit juice into small rucksacks.
Over a meal of prawn curry a few weeks before departure, Mr. Ayas’s favorite dish, the pair said farewell to friends and family.
“Pray for me when I am gone. I will think of you often,” Mr. Ayas said he told his mother in their last conversation before leaving.
He said later: “If we stayed in Myanmar, we might die. If we went on the boat we might reach Australia, or die. It was under the order of God.”
Chapter Two: In Sight of the Dream
On March 3, soon after Mohammad Ayas and his pregnant wife, Ateka Bagom, set foot on a black wooden passenger ferry sailing from Maungdaw in western Myanmar, she was sick.
She couldn’t hold down water, let alone the packets of dried noodles they’d packed to eat on the journey.
There were 550 people packed onto the medium-sized ferry, Mr. Ayas said in an interview. Women and children were below while the men sat on the open deck. There was no space to lie down, Mr. Ayas said, and soon most of the passengers were vomiting as stormy seas battered the boat in the Bay of Bengal.
Mr. Ayas and his wife knew no one on board. His younger brother, Ayub, was also attempting to go to Australia, but on another boat, with plans to meet Mr. Ayas and his wife later in the journey. As a result, there was little conversation. Instead, Mr. Ayas said he supped at a water bottle and watched as the Myanmar coastline disappeared.
Unable to sleep as waves rocked the boat and bouts of seasickness washed over him, he fretted about his wife. Once in a while, he stuck his head into the hold to ask her how she was doing.
The boat’s Thai captain didn’t speak any English, Mr. Ayas said. The passengers had no idea how far they were from their first destination: an island off Thailand, where they’d catch a faster boat to nearby Malaysia.
On the second day, a man of about 20, weakened by more than a day of violent retching, suddenly clutched his chest in pain, Mr. Ayas said. The man writhed on the deck and then died.
A sailor dragged the corpse to the bow, Mr. Ayas said, where it lay for two days, bloating. On the third day, the same sailor dragged the body to the edge of the boat and threw it into the deep. The male passengers on the deck bowed their heads in prayer.
“We were all so afraid. We thought we might die too,” Mr. Ayas recounted later.
For the final three days of the journey it rained incessantly. Waterlogged passengers huddled in silence on deck, staring at the water.
Finally, they reached a small island off the coast of Thailand. There, they spent two days waiting for a much smaller boat for the five-hour trip to Malaysia. Then they slipped into the country from an isolated beach and reached a small market town, Bagan Ajam, in Penang State.
Mr. Ayas and his wife spent a month there, catching up with friends who’d fled Myanmar earlier. Malaysia, a majority Muslim country, is popular with many Myanmar Rohingya, who view it as a haven from religious persecution, though migrants like Mr. Ayas and his wife do not have legal rights to live or work there.
The couple rented a room from a friend in a small house near the center of town. Mr. Ayas said he also reunited with a cousin, Manssoor Ahmad, 30, who had lived in Malaysia for more than a decade.
- See their estimated route from Myanmar
At a restaurant in the center of Bagan Ajam, Mr. Ayas met with his Malaysian agent—one of a string of connected people-smugglers he said he dealt with during the trip. He and his wife wanted to head for Australia.
The plan called for them to travel by bus and boat to Indonesia. There they would catch a boat from the port city of Kendari in late June for the crucial final leg to Australia.
Mr. Ayas said he paid about $2,600 each for himself and his wife to cover the remaining expenses.
Mr. Manssoor, his cousin, decided to join them on the voyage with his wife and four young children, paying more than $8,000 for their passage to Australia, according to Mr. Manssoor.
From the Penang area, Mr. Ayas and his wife went by bus to Kuala Lumpur, a roughly 200-mile journey. Near there, he said, they boarded a small fishing boat crewed by Malaysians for a 24-hour journey to Medan, in the northern part of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Some 30 people crammed into a tiny craft that smelled of rotten fish and swayed wildly as waves crashed down on it, Mr. Ayas said.
From Medan, they traveled by bus and a short plane flight to the port city of Kendari, the capital of Southeast Sulawesi province, in Indonesia’s southeast–a point in Indonesia’s vast archipelago about 800 miles from Australia. As in Malaysia, the refugees had no legal rights in Indonesia, including the right to work or attend school.
There they spent two months waiting for a local agent to find a suitable boat to take them onward. They stayed with a local family in a small room that was included in the fee they had paid the agent in Malaysia, Mr. Ayas said.
Finally, on June 24, they joined nearly 100 Muslims on a white wooden fishing boat about 50-feet long to strike out for Australia.
Ms. Ateka, now more than eight months pregnant, felt anxious about getting on yet another boat. But that was overcome by her desire to give birth Down Under. It would mean, she said later, a chance at a better life for her unborn child.
The boat they boarded was never meant for travel on the open seas or to carry more than a handful of crew, according to Mr. Ayas. The women below deck shared a single toilet. As the boat struck out into the Banda Sea, Mr. Ayas said, almost everyone on board was ill.
On the third day at sea, Ms. Ateka was gripped by a sudden and violent seizure. Her body, frail from seasickness, shook uncontrollably, Mr. Ayas said, as her fellow passengers looked on, unable to intervene.
Ms. Ateka had suffered similar seizures once or twice a month since she was 15, but the issue hadn’t been medically diagnosed. She and her husband had no idea what caused them.
The fit on the boat was the worst Mr. Ayas had seen, he said. He feared for the health of his unborn baby and any future children.
“She has a most serious disease,” he said. “But I don’t know what it is.”
For food, those that could eat had plain crackers and cartons of juice brought with them from Malaysia.
A number of passengers had smartphones with access to Google maps and satellite-tracking technology. They used them to track their progress. Late in the evening of June 29, those signals put them in waters just north of Darwin on Australia’s north coast.
But the boat’s engine was failing, sputtering in and out, leaving them adrift for long periods on the high swells. Then, in the distance, a pair of lights blinked yellow and red.
The men grabbed clothes and flashlights and waved them wildly in the deep black of the southern winter night, attempting to raise the attention of the ship.
They were convinced it was an Australian Coast Guard vessel because they were in Australian waters close to the coast, Mr. Ayas and others said. They hoped it would ferry them to safety – and possibly, legal residency – on Australian shores.
Below deck, the women and children erupted in laughter and prayer.
But then the engines, corroded by years of sea-spray, failed again. They wouldn’t restart, said Mr. Ayas. The lights of the other ship disappeared. Large waves pushed the refugees’ creaky boat farther from the shore.
Australian authorities said they have no record of a vessel matching the fishing boat’s description in that location around that time. It remains unclear whether the refugees correctly plotted their location.
Over the next day, waves thrashed the boat as it drifted across the Timor Sea, which runs between Australia and East Timor, east of the Indian Ocean.
“Men were crying and women were screaming ‘Allah, Allah, we’re going to die!’” Mr. Ayas said.
A day later, they washed up on a remote beach in impoverished East Timor more than 400 miles north of Australia. They were bruised and battered, but glad to be alive, Mr. Ayas said.
It was July 1, the start of the fifth month of their journey from Myanmar.
Locals in the tiny Timorese fishing village of Aliambata were initially friendly, helping carry the children and belongings from the shipwrecked boat, Mr. Ayas said. They offered the passengers rice and other food and invited them to sleep in the villagers’ homes and in a local hall.
The passengers soon met with local authorities and requested asylum in East Timor, according to Mr. Ayas and other refugees interviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
- Rachel Pannett
- Rafi Zaw Win, 29, a former pharmaceutical salesman and human-rights activist who fled Myanmar to seek asylum in Australia.
As they recuperated from their journey, the passengers played football with villagers. They cooked together and shared tales from their travels, said one of the passengers, Rafi Zaw Win, 29, a pharmaceutical seller. His brother had recently made it by boat to Australia from western Myanmar.
“They looked healthy and OK to me,” said Chief Corporal Sesar Amaral, a member of the East Timorese Police Task Force, in an interview. “Yes, they looked tired, but nothing struck me as extraordinary.”
The passengers also tried to fix their boat’s engines, but the wooden boat was “beyond repair,” Mr. Amaral said.
With each day that passed, Mr. Ayas grew more nervous. His wife was eight months pregnant.
The mood of their East Timorese hosts, at first so welcoming, swiftly turned on July 4, Mr. Ayas and other passengers said. Local officials tried to push the refugees and their boat back to sea after Dili, East Timor’s capital, rejected their claims for asylum, according to Mr. Ayas and other passengers.
At about 9 p.m. that day, according to their account, authorities forced them to the beach at gunpoint and requested they depart for Australia.
The women and children were ordered onto the boat where they spent the night waiting for the tide to turn. The men huddled at water’s edge, under the watch of guards, the passengers said.
At dawn, the men tried for several hours to drag the boat into the sea. The rundown vessel began to take on water and crack up as waves bashed the creaky hull against the sand, the passengers said.
Local officials disputed their account. “We didn’t use force or gunpoint,” said Mr. Amaral of the police force. He said the passengers wanted to continue their journey to Australia. No coercion took place, Mr. Amaral said.
Mr. Ayas and others in the group said local authorities confiscated their mobile phones with pictures of the incident. Mr. Ayas said, as a result, he lost all the phone numbers for his family.
Mr. Amaral said no one from his branch of the police took any phones. Another local police official, who gave his name only as Gaspir, said that if any phones were taken, it would have been to identify the refugees and they would have been returned to them. Neither official was present at the scene at the time, the officials said.
East Timor’s foreign minister, José Luís Guterres, said in an interview that the passengers had not wanted to stay in the country and asked to continue their journey to Australia. He noted that police helped treat some of the ill refugees and provided them with food.
He said they were also given oil and diesel for their boat. They didn’t request asylum in East Timor, according to the foreign minister.
“They were never pressured, using guns or any other measures, to pressure them not to stay in Timor Leste,” Mr. Guterres said, using the country’s local name. “We did not force them to go back to Australia or to any other place because that is not our business.”
According to Mr. Ayas and other passengers, though, on July 9, local authorities piled the refugees into dump trucks that smelled of rotting palm oil and drove them in the pouring rain to a port.
The next morning, after the migrants spent a sleepless night on the truck, a military official called them up one-by-one, forcing them to board a fishing boat, Mr. Ayas said.
Mr. Ayas and his fellow passenger Mr. Zaw Win said authorities had told them the boat would be going to Australia.
The local official, Gaspir, said in a later interview that the boat was arranged by East Timorese authorities to take them to their next destination, but he wasn’t sure if that destination was supposed to be Australia or somewhere else.
Over the next several weeks, they ricocheted from island to island across the Banda Sea, between East Timor and Indonesia, uncertain of their fate.
A crew from East Timor initially dumped them in a small village on Wetar Island, according to Mr. Ayas and other passengers. It is in the Indonesian province of Maluku, about 35 miles from East Timor.
Indonesian officials then transferred them to a village on another small island nearby, home to about 300 people, according to Mr. Ayas.
The male passengers slept in a village hall while the women were billeted out into villagers’ homes, organized by local authorities. The refugees bought soft drinks from the local store, but felt uncomfortable sharing meals of fish and rice with the villagers as they themselves were so poor, according to Mr. Zaw Win.
Finally, a ship paid for by an international aid group working in Indonesia arrived to collect the refugees, according to an account provided by Indonesia’s immigration authority.
Mr. Ayas still held out hope the journey would end in Australia because, he and others believed, they had made it at one point to Australian territorial waters.
Chapter Three: A New Beginning?
After three days on a ship to Indonesia, Mohammad Ayas and his pregnant wife, Ateka Bagom, arrived in Makassar, a one-time spice-trading hub of 1.3 million people on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
After a journey spanning five months and four countries, they were more than 2,000 miles from their home in Myanmar – and 900 miles from the one country they wanted to reach: Australia.
Most of the Rohingya Muslims on Mr. Ayas’s boat wound up in a detention center in a poor neighborhood on the city’s outskirts, according to an interview with Huntal Hamonangan Hutahurup, head of the center.
The center is housed in a handful of drab white buildings surrounded by a 10-meter-high perimeter fence. It held about 140 people, more than double its official capacity of 60, according to staff on hand during a visit by The Wall Street Journal soon after the refugees’ arrival. A duty guard at the facility declined to comment. Many of the refugees slept in makeshift tents set up on the grounds.
Officials separated Mr. Ayas and Ms. Ateka from the other passengers because of concerns about her health. By then she was nine months and four days pregnant, Mr. Ayas said.
They placed the couple in a windowless room on the top floor of Hotel Mahkota, a rundown four-story stucco building that is often used to house refugees. An international nongovernmental group that assists the United Nations with asylum claims paid for the room. Its regular rate is $13 a night.
Steel steps to the fourth floor were lined with buckets to catch drips from the leaky roof. Balconies were cluttered with mold-ridden mattresses left to air in the sun.
Their room had no cooking facilities, and the tiny en-suite bathroom contained just a toilet without a seat, a cold tap and a bucket for washing.
- I Made Sentana/The Wall Street Journal
- Hotel Mahkota, the halfway house where Mohammad Ayas and Ateka stayed in Makassar.
The couple could come and go as they pleased. But in her weakened state, Ms. Ateka was unable to descend the steep, narrow staircase that separated their attic floor from the rest of the hotel.
They spent most of the time in their room, resting, praying and occasionally watching a small TV above the bed, though neither spoke the local language, Bahasa Indonesia.
Most of what they had brought with them from Myanmar was gone. Mr. Ayas had some flip-flops and two shirts that he’d rotate: a jade and white-striped short-sleeved polo shirt and a gray print short-sleeved shirt.
They relied on donations from international migration authorities and aid workers, who periodically brought shampoo and soap, as well sporadic deliveries of chicken and rice, dried noodles and other food.
They were most anxious about the coming birth of their child. Authorities hadn’t told them whether they would be taken to a hospital or if Ms. Ateka would have to give birth without assistance in their room.
“I am feeling so much tension,” Mr. Ayas said in an interview last month as he sat cross-legged on a small double bed next to his wife. She toyed nervously with her maroon-colored head scarf as he spoke in halting English, a language she doesn’t understand.
“It is very dangerous for her here because she is a pregnant woman,” he said.
Mr. Ayas said he wanted to buy what his wife had craved through her pregnancy: a favorite dish made from dried fish that she hadn’t eaten since they left Myanmar.
But he didn’t know if it was even available in Indonesia, and he only had a few dollars left, given to him by his younger brother Ayub. Ayub was also on the journey from Myanmar and was in the nearby detention center.
Mr. Ayas saved up cartons of long-life milk and soup provided by an aid agency and combined it with his remaining cash, bartering it all with a local shopkeeper in exchange for a cheap mobile phone. He said he found it reassuring to be able to maintain contact with his brother and the others at the detention center.
- I Made Sentana/The Wall Street Journal
- Mohammad Ayas and his wife, Ateka, on the balcony of their halfway house in Indonesia in early August.
As the days ticked by at Hotel Mahkota, Mr. Ayas grew more and more concerned about his wife and unborn child. She was frail and malnourished after their time at sea and from severe morning sickness.
Then, at 6 a.m. on Aug. 7, Ms. Ateka roused her sleeping husband and told him the labor pains had begun.
For two hours they waited anxiously for the hotel reception to open. Ms. Ateka made it down the steep staircase with some help and paced the lobby, occasionally crying out from the pain. Finally the owner’s nephew, who worked at the hotel, reached another uncle who took the pair to a local police hospital in his car.
At the hospital, the news wasn’t good. The baby was in a breech position, with its head lodged high in Ms. Ateka’s abdomen and its bottom obstructing the birth canal.
It was the eve of Eid al-Fitr—the four-day Muslim celebration—and the hospital was staffed mainly by trainee doctors and nurses. The one surgeon, a Christian, was working across four hospitals in the area that day.
The hospital was in disrepair during a visit by a Wall Street Journal reporter. The paint was peeling. Light fittings were caked in grime and the walls splashed with dirt. Feral cats roamed the grounds, and the maternity ward smelled of cat urine. There were what appeared to be blood stains on the floor. To cheer the place up, staff had hung cardboard cutouts of Goofy and Mickey Mouse on the hospital’s walls.
Mr. Ayas, fearing an operation could lead to infection, said he resisted calls from doctors for a caesarean. Finally, after several tense calls to his brother in the detention center, he relented and signed the necessary forms.
In a delivery suite nearby, Ms. Ateka writhed while nurses tried to mime instructions to resist the urge to push. A natural birth would put her baby in grave danger.
The nurses also explained as much as they could in broken English to Mr. Ayas, who stayed at his wife’s bedside until she was wheeled into the operating suite, he said. He wore his only remaining pair of pants—jeans with fashionable tears given to him the previous year, in Sittwe, by Turkish Muslims.
At around 1:30 p.m., Mr. Ayas was called into the theater to explain to his wife, who spoke only a local Rohingya dialect, that she must stay still while an anesthetist drove a needle into her spine.
During the operation, the head of the baby – a girl – became lodged. The baby turned blue and stopped breathing, risking brain damage or worse. The surgeon quickly pulled her out.
Minutes later, at around 2:30 p.m. a nurse appeared wearing surgical scrubs. Mr. Ayas said he eyed the bloodied contents of a plastic bag in her hand and panicked. But she announced the birth of a daughter. The bag contained the placenta, to be buried nearby according to local and Muslim practice.
“It’s so good my baby is a girl because she can be like the sister and mother (my wife) never had,” Mr. Ayas said half an hour later as he held his new baby for the first time. His brown eyes, which had appeared traumatized from their long journey, sparkled with life.
The next day, Mr. Ayas patiently fed Ms. Ateka a cheese and tomato sandwich, with the crust cut off, as she lay on the bed recovering from the surgery. Afterward, he fed her water through a straw, bringing the bottle close to her lips so that she wouldn’t have to change position.
He asked her if she was eager to see her baby, which she hadn’t seen since the birth. She grinned.
- Rachel Pannett/The Wall Street Journal
- The newborn baby
The following night was the loneliest of his journey so far, Mr. Ayas said. He said he had less than $5 in his pocket after paying a local woman to launder garments used during the birth. He had no money for baby formula or other supplies for their new daughter.
In the hospital, as other new fathers smoked cigarettes and joked, Mr. Ayas rested on a grimy plastic chair outside the intensive care unit where his wife was still recovering.
He said he questioned whether he made the right decision getting on a boat five months before, when he left behind his family and friends, sold their gold, and abandoned plans to run a store in the same lane where his father had set up a business.
Instead, he was broke, 2,000 miles from home with an incapacitated wife and a fragile baby with no permanent place to live and no clue about what the future would hold.
“I am so tired,” he said two days after the birth, on Aug. 9, as nurses prepared the baby for an X-ray that would show her left arm was broken during the rough caesarean procedure.
- Rachel Pannett/The Wall Street Journal
- An X-ray two days after the baby’s birth found her arm had been broken in the rough caesarean procedure in an Indonesian hospital.
Mr. Ayas tried to keep his wider worries about the future from his wife, so that she wouldn’t worry.
“We are in such a bad way. I feel so much unhappiness, but my wife doesn’t know,” he said in an interview at the time. And their baby was struggling.
With a birth weight of just 2.3 kilograms, she was fed through a drip and kept in an incubator as fever wracked her tiny body, sweat beading on her brow and her face etched in a grimace.
After two weeks in bandages, however, doctors were hopeful of a full recovery for the baby’s arm. Finally Mr. Ayas’s wife and daughter were released from the hospital, and the young family returned to the halfway house where they were staying in Makassar.
Mr. Ayas celebrated the event by settling on a name: Aqila, chosen for its likeness to his wife’s name. Ms. Ateka cuddled and played with her.
Several days after the birth Mr. Ayas sent a message to his mother via friends in Malaysia, telling her the news of his daughter’s birth and their arrival in Indonesia. He left out any discussion about what they planned to do next.
Refugees can’t work legally in Indonesia and without a job Mr. Ayas worried about how he would provide food and other essentials for his young family. His daughter does not qualify for Indonesian citizenship under Indonesian law.
Mr. Ayas had applied, along with other Rohingya Muslim refugees that accompanied him on his journey, for political asylum in early August. But he hadn’t been told how long he might have to wait for his claim to be processed or how likely it was he would be resettled.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are nearly 11,000 asylum seekers and official refugees waiting to be processed in Indonesia. Yet fewer than 2,000 refugees registered with the U.N. in Indonesia were resettled between 2001 and 2011. Many wind up languishing in detention centers for years.
An official from the International Organization for Migration said last week that the couple’s application was still being processed.
“We have to find a way to go abroad,” Mr. Ayas said on Aug. 26, as the reality of his dim prospects settled in.
He didn’t want to repeat the experience of the previous five months, though. “I would not travel by boat again,” he said. “It is too dangerous.”
A day later, his daughter was back in the hospital with a fever. She hadn’t taken any milk since the previous day and cried through the night at the hotel.
[The Wall Street Journal compiled this account from dozens of interviews, including passengers, aid workers, government and police officials. It will run as a serialized story on asia.wsj.com over three days this week.]
–Celine Fernandez, I-Made Sentana, Shibani Mahtani, Myo Myo, Yayu Yuniar and Andreas Ismar contributed to this article.