As Amnesty investigation reveals Andaman Sea death toll this year much higher than previously thought, desperate Rohingya Muslims tell The Telegraph they will risk harrowing ordeal to flee camps by boat
Yasmin, a young mother-of-four, knows only too well the dangers that will imperil her family as she awaits the start of the new “sailing season” for the persecuted Rohingya Muslims of Burma.
Even if the rickety overcrowded vessels do not sink in the waters of the Andaman Sea, there is the risk of death from starvation, disease and beatings during the voyage.
And those who make it to land in Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia will then face the risk of another hellish ordeal, held for ransom at jungle camps by trafficker gangs.
But so desperate and pitiful are the conditions for the stateless Muslim minority, held in squalid internment camps in predominantly Buddhist Burma, that Yasmin is determined to join Asia’s next wave of “boat people”.
And residents of the camps told The Telegraph that agents for the trafficking gangs are already actively recruiting with promises of new lives abroad as the monsoons end for the year and boats prepare to sail again.
The dangers are highlighted in a new investigation by Amnesty International that reveals that hundreds, maybe thousands, more refugees and migrants perished at sea earlier this year than first estimated.
The report, “Deadly journeys: The refugee and trafficking crisis in Southeast Asia”, is based on interviews with more than 100 Rohingya refugees who reached Indonesia by sea.
While the United Nations has estimated that at least 370 people lost their lives between January and June 2015, Amnesty International believes the true figure to be much higher.
Witnesses told the group that they saw “dozens” of large boats packed with refugees and migrants in similar circumstances. But only five vessels landed in Indonesia and Malaysia according to UN sources.
Hundreds – probably thousands – of people are unaccounted for and feared to have have died during their journeys or been sold for forced labour, Amnesty has concluded.
“The daily physical abuse faced by Rohingya who were trapped on boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea is almost too horrific to put into words, said Anna Shea, refugee researcher at Amnesty International. “They had escaped Myanmar [Burma], but had only traded one nightmare for another.”
More than 100,000 Rohingyas are believed to have fled Burma, mainly by sea, since sectarian bloodletting with local Buddhist forced them into the camps in 2012.
Last year, an estimated 63,000 alone made the journey and the harrowing threats are now well-known in the camps. Yet thousands will try again in coming months.
The privately-owned Phoenix vessel operated by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) is currently sailing towards the Bay of Bengal after spending the summer rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean in the world’s other “boat people” crisis.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has already warned that it expects another exodus to start soon in the fast-approaching “sailing season”.
Indeed, that is the date that matters for Rohingyas, not Burma’s historic elections on November 8. Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party is expected to triumph, but she has said little about the plight of a Muslim community wiped from voter lists by controversial citizenship rules.
Their role in the election indeed is primarily to serve as the focus of anti-Muslim sentiment stoked by radical Buddhist monks and nationalist politicians.
“There’s nothing for me and my children here, nothing,” Yasmin said. “I don’t care about the risks, I’d rather try and die than experience this living death here.”
She eked out a living sells packets of sweets, biscuits and nuts for a few pennies a bag from her home, one of the thousands of shacks of bamboo walls and corrugated iron roofs in camps near Sittwe, the provincial capital.
She tried to make the same desperate seaborne escape this year with her children to reach her husband in Malaysia, where he fled after the anti-Rohingya violence of 2012.
After local guides paid the bribes to a police unit deployed on the waterfront to look the other way, a small boat ferried the mother and her four young children out to a large trafficking vessel captained by a Thai crew anchored offshore.
Such ships would wait at sea before setting sail for Thailand and Malaysia when they were packed to the gills with their desperate cargo of refugees and migrants – Rohingyas fleeing persecution and helplessness in Burma, and impoverished Bangladeshis seeking a better life.
Despite the dangers, people continue to flee
For most, the goal is to reach Malaysia, often uniting with male relatives who went first to earn money and send for family later. Malaysian officials have since the 2012 violence largely turned a blind eye to the arrival of fellow Muslims to fill low-paying manual jobs.
But the boat that was supposed to carry Yasmin never left the Bay of Bengal amid international outrage about the plight of South East Asia’s “boat people”.
Thailand cracked down on the human smuggling trade after mass graves were found at trafficker bases along the Thai-Malay border. They contained the remains of those who died in captivity, from illness, injuries or execution, as the human smugglers demanded more money from their families.
With the Thai escape route closed down at that stage, the captain of the vessel carrying Yasmin and her children offloaded his human cargo after they had waited on board for two months.
But she is determined to try again, despite all that she knows about the danger of death at sea or the trafficker camps.
An estimated 140,000 Rohingyas have lived in camps since communal violence forced them to flee their homes in 2012. The areas are blockaded by military checkpoints, with their sorry stateless inhabitants not allowed to leave for work, to go to college and rarely even for medical treatment.
At the beachfront Royal Sittwe hotel, just down the coast from the camp, leaders of Buddhist Rakhine parties recently signed up to a code of conduct for next month’s elections under the auspices of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
Among them was Aye Maung, the chairman of the Arakan National Party who played a leading role in the 2012 anti-Muslim protests. He echoed the tones of segregationists in other ethnic and racial conflicts when he insisted that the only option for the Buddhists and Muslims was to live separately.
“We were scared of violence and fearful of attacks by Islamic terrorists,” he claimed. Citing an alleged Rohingya terror threat that has never existed, he continued: “We have information that there are training camps along the Bangladeshi border and they have contacts with people from the Middle East and al-Qaeda.”
Such claims are widely dismissed as inventions by security experts, but are widely quoted by Rakhine Buddhists.
“Our communities need to live separately for peace and tranquillity,” Aye Maung said. “I think both groups are now happy living apart while we re-build trust.”
Sense of helplessness forcing people to free
Of course, while the state’s Buddhists are free to work and travel, that separation has left its Muslims trapped in camps, unable to find work, feeling they have no future in Burma.
It is that sense of helplessness that motivates Yasmin to insist that she will try and flee again with her children. But there are also plenty in the camps who would counsel her of the dangers that involves.
Mohamed Tauyub and his wife Hazara Khatu discovered 18 months ago that their 15-year-old son Mohamed Hussein had disappeared. Soon they received word that the teenager, one of their 11 children, had been lured by a trafficking gang to try and escape to Malaysia by sea.
The traffickers even gave him about $20 (£13) to buy some snacks for the journey – a typical inducement by the smuggling gangs that make their profits by demanding payments later from the families.
And the couple duly received a message from the traffickers several months later. “They said that they were holding Mohamed Hussein at a camp in Malaysia and that they would harm him if we did not send them $2,000,” his mother said.
The money was a small fortune to the impoverished family, but they scraped together $700 by selling their rations books and borrowing from others and sent the money via an intermediary – to no avail.
“The traffickers were furious and demanded more money. We told them they we didn’t have it and so they said they would do something terrible to our son and discard his body,” she said.
Wiping away tears, she described the next communication – a photo sent by mobile phone. “It showed Mohamed Hussein by the side of the road,” she said. “They’d beaten him and broken his arms and legs, but thank God, they hadn’t killed him.”
The teenager was taken in by other Rohingya and has told his parents that he is slowly recovering from his ordeal. “We asked him to come back,” said Hazara Khatu. “But he would rather stay and try his luck in Malaysia.”
His final message to his parents was as simple as it was sad, she recalled. He told her: “There’s no future now for a Rohingya in Myanmar.” And for many Buddhist Rakhine leaders, that is exactly the plan.