KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 15 — 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 by Reuters 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 U.N. investigation published earlier this month found.

Malaysia criticised

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 Datuk Seri 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 U.N. 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.

The Malaysian government did not return requests seeking comment for this story.

Child marriages allowed

Child marriages are also tolerated in Muslim-majority Malaysia. Under Islamic law, Muslim girls under 16 can marry with permission from the Shariah court, though in the case of the Rohingya marriages in Malaysia there is no court involvement — Rohingya imams conduct them and while a marriage certificate is printed there is no indication it is a legal document under Malaysian law.

The girl who was married was taken to Kuantan, on Malaysia’s east coast, where she said she quickly learned that her new husband was controlling and abusive. He confiscated her mobile phone and did not allow his family to see her. She was left alone for days in the house.

Eight months into the marriage, she reconnected with her parents and four younger siblings, and was rescued by her father, who had travelled to Kuantan to find her.

The girl’s husband did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story.

She now lives with her family in a one-room shack in a small village on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

While she feels safer now, she said she was afraid that she may have to return to her husband, who has refused to grant her a divorce.

Sharifah Shakirah, a refugee herself and founder of the Rohingya Women Development Network, said Rohingyas have no legal status in Malaysia, and their marriages are not recognized. This can make it harder for law enforcement to intervene in domestic abuse cases, even when they involve children.

“To ask help from lawyers and police is not easy because they (Rohingyas) don’t have legal status. Even when cases of child brides are reported, the police don’t take action,” said Sharifah, who provides help and counseling to Rohingya women.

‘Life of dignity’

According to UN statistics, some 56,000 Rohingya are living in Malaysia, although migrant groups say the number is much higher as many are undocumented. The community is mainly spread across impoverished suburbs around the capital Kuala Lumpur.

For young men in this small, marginalised community, finding a partner and having a family is a way of elevating their social status and having a normal life, according to Rohingya men interviewed by Reuters.

The lack of eligible women in Rohingya communities in Malaysia has created a demand for brides, while some families see marriage as a way to reduce their financial burdens, said Belal Hossain Shamia, 32, a Rohingya father of three in Kuala Lumpur whose sister was a child bride.

A former trafficking agent, a Rohingya man identified only as Ali, told Reuters there is a growing demand for Rohingya brides. Smuggling syndicates can get up to RM7,000 for each girl’s release to their family or sale to a man.

Ali kept guard at a jungle trafficking camp near the Thai-Malaysian border. He said women and girls travelling alone or whose families were unable to pay the release fees were sold.

“There were girls there who were about 15 or 16. They have no choice...” he said.

Yasmin Zokir Ahmad, 18, recalled how her husband, a Rohingya who worked as a grass-cutter in Kuala Lumpur, paid a trafficking agent RM3,500 to marry her two years ago.

This was after a harrowing nine-month journey to Malaysia, which included a voyage by sea and a long period in a Thai jungle camp where she was often denied food or water.

“I didn’t have a choice. I needed to marry him because I need support and protection, and I want to live a life of dignity,” Yasmin said. Her husband declined to comment. — Reuters