The Rohingyas: Illegal immigrants or victims of trafficking? — Jules Rahman Ong

A group of Rohingya people, just arrived a few weeks ago, sharing their harrowing experiences with an Al-Jazeera reporter. — Pictures by Jules Ong
A group of Rohingya people, just arrived a few weeks ago, sharing their harrowing experiences with an Al-Jazeera reporter. — Pictures by Jules Ong

MAY 12 — Yesterday, 1,018 Rohingya refugees were left stranded in two boats in Langkawi. The day before several boats contaning 900 Rohingya refugees were found adrift in Indonesian waters near to Aceh.

On the Malaysian side, maritime police has branded them as illegal immigrants and they were promptly arrested and hauled to detention. On the Indonesian side, the government has put up shelters for them while they undergo immigration, health and security checks.

All the refugees were in a terrible state, sick and starved over weeks or months, having endured abuse and neglect. But the difference in labelling and hence, the treatment of these people could not have been more stark.

Did they come here by their own volition, knowing that they were entering a country illegally, or were they victims of trafficking? Why are they here?

I am going to share with you this man’s story. I met Karim, a 37-year old Rohingya man at a surau in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. The kind people who administer the small mosque has taken him in and given him a job of cleaning the compound, perhaps, so that they can give him some money in return. They pay him RM900 a month and he has been living there for five months.

Karim was a fisherman in the Arakan state of Myanmar. He has a wife and five young children. He lived in another village not far from his family in order to make a living. A year ago, Karim said that his village was attacked by Myanmar soldiers. Houses were burnt down and people were shot. He along with about 40 people escaped in a friend’s fishing boat in the dead of night.

“We left quietly in the night. There were eight women and about 12 children. We did not know where we were going, only to escape,” he said. They were adrfit for several days when they were intercepted by a pirate boat.

“There were these men wearing masks with guns. They forced all of us into their bigger boat. There were already people who were in the same predicament as us in the boat. We were taken to a rubber estate in Thailand. There were about 200 of us.

“There we were put in cages. We were treated like animals. They handed us a mobile phone and were asked to call our families to pay for our release. If we could not promise them any money, they beat us. The women were raped. Some people died from the beatings and they threw the bodies into the ground.” Karim showed us the long lacerations on his back from the beatings.

“I promised that I will pay RM5,000 if they released me. They took some of us across to the Malaysian border by foot, and then by a vehicle to BM (Bukit Mertajam, Penang).”

Karim hopes to be reunited with his family.
Karim hopes to be reunited with his family.

Karim said that he and 16 others decided to fight their way out, knowing fully well that since they could not pay up, they will definitely be killed. By some miracle and pure desperation, they managed to overpower the three smugglers who were guarding them, then split up. Karim made his way to Kuala Lumpur, sleeping in suraus and mosques along the way.

18 days ago, he learnt that his wife and children were in Southern Thailand. He received a call from a smuggler who threatened that if he wanted to see his family, he must pay RM14,000. He heard his wife’s sobbing voice through the phone begging him to deliver the money. She said they were being starved, men were beaten and the younger women were raped.

Karim said he did not have the full information of how his wife and children came to be in Thailand. He said that he did not send for his family to Malaysia as he did not have the means to pay for their travel. Karim spoke to the smuggler three times over the past two and a half weeks. Each time the smuggler who spoke Myanmar language threatened to kill his family if he did not pay up.

The harrowing ordeal wrought on the poor man. He still bore the physical scars of the beatings on his right brow, but the emotional scars visibly etched on his face were something he carried far heavier.

Perhaps the men and women whose bodies were discovered in unmarked graves in Southern Thailand last week did not die in vain. All the media attention brought by the gruesome discovery has spooked the traffickers. So far almost 2,000 Rohingya refugees have been found set adrift or abandoned in both Indonesia and Malaysia.

A Rohingya woman told the reporter her 11-year old son died as a result of lack of food and water when they were being held in a traffickers camp in Thailand.
A Rohingya woman told the reporter her 11-year old son died as a result of lack of food and water when they were being held in a traffickers camp in Thailand.

Yesterday, Karim received a call from his wife… in Aceh. She told him they were piled up in a boat and left adrift for a week before being intercepted by Indonesian marine police. She was among the first batch 400 Rohingyas to be rescued and sent to Aceh for processing. Perhaps both Karim and his family will be reunited somehow. It is still a long way, Karim being undocumented in Malaysia, and his wife and children uncertain over what were to become of them in Indonesia.

Rohingyas do not have a land to return to and neither do they have a country that will vouch for them. Myanmar government does not recognise them as citizens due to a long history of conflict and strive and the legacy of colonialism that carved up countries without much thought of its aftermath.

Rohingyas are stateless, and in today’s world of immigration boundaries and man-made borders, to be without a country is perhaps the most terrible thing that can happen to you. God never drew boundaries on land, air or water. Humans made them, and those who fell through the cracks are fair game for pirates, smugglers and traffickers who work hand in hand with corrupt government officers.

Karim’s story is not uncommon. I met many Rohingyas who recounted harrowing experiences being trafficked as they escape certain death in Myanmar. Horrendous accounts of these modern migration of boat people who are being thrown overboard because they refuse to be victims — women who refused to be violated and men who die fighting for their family’s lives.

Criminals or victims?

Asean, more interested in business investments than human lives continue to remain silent over this human tragedy. Malaysia is hard denying any involvement even though it is a destination country. This is the story of our times, and history will judge how we deal with it. Tragically, denial and silence appear to be how we confront this humanitarian crisis.

* Jules Rahman Ong is an independent filmmaker, a freelance journalist and producer for international broadcasters.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online. 

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