The slight girl in a turquoise headscarf held back tears as she recalled what happened when she fled to Malaysia from Myanmar’s violence-hit Rakhine state. Just 12-years-old at the time, she was forced to wed a man she did not know, and who was more than a decade older than her.
The teenager, who is not being named because she is still only 13, is like hundreds of Rohingya girls escaping persecution, violence and apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine, only to be sold into marriage to Rohingya men in neighbouring Malaysia, migrant groups and community members said.
Separated from her family while escaping to Malaysia, she said she was caught by traffickers and held for weeks in a filthy and brutal jungle camp near the Thai-Malaysian border with dozens of others. Her captors told her a Rohingya man was willing to give her freedom if she agreed to marry him.
“The (trafficking) agent said I had been sold to a man and I asked, how could do they do that? My heart was heavy and I was scared,” the girl said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.
Reuters could not independently verify certain aspects of her story but her mother confirmed she was held in the camp for weeks before being released.
The girl’s plight is just one illustration of the hardships faced by many Rohingya Muslims, a minority group in Myanmar who are regarded by the nation’s government as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, entitled only to limited rights.
Since 2012, violence and communal clashes have seen hundreds of Rohingya killed while tens of thousands have fled, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh. In the most recent crackdown, security forces and police committed mass killings and gang rapes and burned villages in northern Rakhine, a UN investigation published earlier this month found.
WHO TO BLAME?
It has been common for Rohingya women escaping Myanmar to wed Rohingya men in the country they fled to, usually through marriages arranged between families, rights groups said. Some of these arranged marriages would be for underage girls.
But a growing number are becoming victims of human traffickers who sell women and girls to Rohingya men as brides.
Matthew Smith, executive director of the Southeast Asia-based migrant and refugee protection group Fortify Rights, said the group had seen a “significant” rise in the number of child brides following increased violence in Rakhine.
There are no official statistics on how many girls have been sold into marriage. In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a report it had identified 120 Rohingya child brides in Malaysia but it was unclear how many were trafficking victims.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has spoken out strongly in the past few months against Buddhist Myanmar over its handling of the violence in Rakhine and the Rohingyas’ plight.
But rights groups say Malaysia, which has not signed the UN refugee convention, has been complicit in the abuse of Rohingya asylum-seekers because they are treated as illegal migrants with no official access to jobs, healthcare or education. They live in poverty working illegally in restaurants or construction sites.
The Malaysian government launched a project this month that enables 300 Rohingya people to be employed, a move welcomed by rights groups.