The two children stood on the beach, at the end of the only world they knew, torn between land and sea.
They could not go back to their tiny Muslim village in Myanmar’s northwest Rakhine because it had been devoured in a fire set by an angry Buddhist mob. In the smoke and chaos, the siblings became separated from their family. After seven months of searching, they had lost hope of finding anyone alive.
The only way was forward. Hungry and scared, they eyed a rickety wooden fishing boat in the darkness. Mohamad Husein, just 15, dug into his pocket and pulled out a little wad of money for the captain. He and his nine-year-old sister, Senwara Begum, climbed on board, cramming themselves tightly between the other ethnic Rohingya in the small hull.
As the ship pushed off, they did not realize they were among hundreds, if not thousands, of children joining one of the world’s biggest boat exoduses since the Vietnam War. They only understood it was not safe to stay in a country that did not want them.
Mohamad had no idea where they were headed. As Senwara looked back in tears, she wondered if she would ever see her parents again.
Neither could imagine the horrors that lay ahead.
From Malaysia to Australia, countries easily reachable by boat have been implementing policies and practices to ensure that Rohingya Muslims do not wash up on their shores — from shoving them back to sea, where they risk being sold as slaves, to flat out barring the refugees from stepping onto their soil.
Despite pleas from the UN, which considers the Rohingya to be among the most persecuted groups on earth, many governments in the region have refused to sign refugee conventions and protocols, meaning they are not obligated to help. The countries said they fear adopting the international agreements could attract a flood of immigrants they cannot support.
However, rights groups said they are failing members of the religious minority at their most vulnerable hour, even as more women and children join the increasing mass departure.
“The sense of desperation and hopelessness is growing,” Vivian Tan of the UN Refugee Agency said.
About 1.3 million Rohingya live in the predominantly Buddhist country of 60 million, almost all of them in Rakhine state. Myanmar considers them illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though some families have lived there for generations.
When the country was under military rule, young men took to the seas on small, dilapidated boats every year in search of a better life. However, since the bumpy transition to democracy in 2011, sectarian violence has killed up to 280 Rohingya and forced more than 140,000 others from their homes. Now people of all ages are fleeing, many on massive cargo ships.
Women and children made up 5-to-15 percent of the estimated 75,000 passengers who have left since the riots began in mid-June 2012, said Chris Lewa of the nonprofit Arakan Project, a group that has tracked the boat journeys for a decade. The year before, about 9,000 people fled, most of them men.
It is a dangerous voyage: Nearly 2,000 Rohingya have died or gone missing in the past two years, Lewa said. Unaccompanied children like Senwara and her brother are among the most at risk.
The Associated Press reported from Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand on their plight, interviewing family members, witnesses and aid groups. Data was collected from the UN, government agencies, non-profit organizations and news reports at the time.