Bibijan Rahimullah stepped aboard a small boat in Myanmar in October for what she was told would be a week-long journey to Malaysia to escape violence and discrimination afflicting her Rohingya ethnic group.
Instead, she and her three young children endured a harrowing, month-long odyssey by sea and land, packed “like sardines” on a series of vessels and watched several fellow migrants die or be beaten to death, their bodies tossed into the sea like garbage.
“I didn’t expect the tragedy we faced on the way to come here. If I had known, I would never have come. I would rather die in my home,” Bibijan, 27, said during an interview in Kuala Lumpur.
Muslim Rohingya — labeled by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities — have for years braved the dangerous passage down the Andaman Sea and Thai coast to Malaysia.
They flee discrimination and repression in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, where authorities view the roughly 1.3 million Rohingya as foreigners, denying most of them citizenship and placing restrictions on their movement, marriages and economic opportunities.
However, the flow has accelerated into a growing exodus two years after deadly clashes erupted between Buddhists and Rohingya in Rakhine state, activists said.
Chris Lewa of Rohingya rights group Arakan Project, which monitors departures, said that an estimated 19,000 have fled since early October.
The exodus comes partly as conditions deteriorate in squalid Rakhine camps where about 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya, live after being displaced by the violence.
Increasing numbers of women and children are risking a journey previously taken mostly by men, activist said.
Bibijan, her five-year-old son and daughters aged two and three, left their home in northwestern Rakhine to join her husband, who fled to Malaysia two years earlier.
She paid smugglers US$2,500, some of it borrowed.
A small boat packed with dozens of people took them down a river to a ship anchored at sea, where they waited several days in cramped conditions as hundreds were brought aboard, leaving space only to sit.
“It was very crowded. People became like fish, like sardines,” Bibijan said.
Wracked by sea sickness, she would pass out between bouts of vomiting.
Women were fed twice daily, a meager meal of rice and three dried chilies, and some water. Men ate once, or not at all.
“[The men] became very weak. When they asked for more food, they were beaten with rifle butts and iron rods,” Bibijan said, her big, fearful black eyes peering out under a black Muslim headscarf as her children clung to her.
About a dozen people died at sea, some beaten to death by smugglers, others succumbing to hunger, dehydration or illness, said Bibijan, who saw corpses thrown overboard.
Activists said larger ships were being used to accommodate growing numbers, and accuse authorities in Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand of looking the other way or profiting from the illegal people smuggling.
Once, Burmese authorities boarded, shining flashlights into the faces of Bibijan’s terrified family. They let the boat proceed.
Rohingya activists allege a coordinated campaign to chase the group from Myanmar.
“They want to drive all the Rohingya out of the country,” said Saifullah Muhammad, a Rohingya activist in Kuala Lumpur, adding that Rohingya smugglers were aggressively soliciting new passengers in a drive for profit.
The UN last month passed a resolution urging Myanmar to allow equal access to citizenship for Rohingya. Burmese President Thein Sein last week dismissed the allegations that Rohingya were fleeing abuses as “media exaggeration.”
Near the Thai coast, Bibijan’s cohort was shifted to another vessel and forced to wait at sea for a number of days as still more human cargo was brought in, including Rohingya and migrants from impoverished Bangladesh.
After nearly a month at sea, they finally set foot in Thailand, walking through jungle for several hours to a makeshift camp where discipline was enforced with beatings.
“They didn’t do anything to us, but we heard women are being harassed. I myself saw [women being taken away]. They use women like slaves. At night they are taken one by one [and abused]. We were scared,” Bibijan said.
After another move, the exhausted family finally piled into a van early last month to be driven to Kuala Lumpur.
Rights groups have criticized Thailand for pushing Rohingya back out to sea, holding them in overcrowded facilities or complicity in the smuggling.
Thailand said last year it was investigating allegations that some Thai army officials were involved.
Dimitrina Petrova of London-based group Equal Rights Trust, which recently launched two reports on Rohingya, called the situation for fleeing Rohingya “inhumane.”
“Both Malaysia and Thailand have failed in their international obligation to provide protection to Rohingya. Even young able-bodied men sometimes don’t survive the journey,” she said.
Some are promised jobs in Malaysia, but get cheated by the traffickers and end up in forced labor or prostitution in Thailand unless they can buy their way out, which Human Rights Watch called a “horrifying new twist” to the “systematic abuses of Rohingya boat people.”
More than 40,000 Rohingya refugees, registered with the UN, are in Malaysia. Rohingya activists say there are roughly equal numbers of unregistered Rohingya.
Malaysia has no laws to protect refugees though it accepts them temporarily. Those who are not registered face arrest and languish in detention unless granted coveted UN refugee status.
More are expected due to conditions in Myanmar. Medecins Sans Frontieres, which provided healthcare to hundreds of thousands across Rakhine, was expelled early this year by Myanmar’s government. It is awaiting permission to return. The World Food Programme, which provides almost all food for the camps, warned last month funding woes could force it to reduce rations.
Bibijan’s family now struggles to eke out a living, with her pharmacist husband cutting grass and performing other odd jobs for about 50 ringgit (US$15) a day.
They live in fear of arrest, but are relieved to have escaped.
“In Malaysia we are safe. In Myanmar we are always scared in our hearts,” Bibijan said.
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