RVISION February 19, 2016

THET KEL PYIN, Arakan State — After Husaina’s 20-year-old son fled poverty and discrimination in Myanmar’s Arakan (Rakhine) State by boat, she heard nothing from him for seven months.

Then, in a shocking phone call, she was told the young Rohingya Muslim was in the hands of people smugglers in Thailand, and had fallen severely ill. The only way for him to be released was to somehow find the money to pay a ransom.

“The man said: ‘If you don’t pay money, he will die… I was so upset. How did he get into the hands of the brokers? How did he become so ill?’” she said, her eyes downcast while sitting in her dank and crumbling one-room temporary home in Thet Kel Pyin displacement camp, a few kilometres outside Akyab (Sittwe).

They found an employer in Malaysia willing to pay about $1,600 in exchange for Mamed Rohim’s labor. That was over a year ago and Rohim is still working to repay the debt. He only manages to send over about $50 every two to three months, which the family uses to repay their own debts.

Since fleeing their home in Akyab (Sittwe), the capital of Arakan (Rakhine) State in western Myanmar from which they are now barred, the family—seven other children and an asthmatic husband—is struggling to make ends meet. But Husaina says Rohim’s plight continues to haunt her.

“Even though I want to send other children on the boat so they could find jobs, I’m really worried about the brokers so I dare not,” she said, as a Rohingya neighbor joined in with a similar tale.

Waves of Rohingya Muslims have fled ongoing genocide and apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar in recent years, many of them swept up in trafficking rings, some of which hold men like Rohim for ransom, making threats to their impoverished families that their loved ones will be killed.

But human rights groups say there has been a dramatic drop in the number of Rohingya leaving Myanmar this year. They attribute this to a crackdown on human trafficking by countries such as Thailand and Malaysia and the political changes at home following the National League for Democracy’s landslide election win in November.

The Myanmar government does not recognize the 1.1 million Rohingya as citizens and calls them “Bengalis,” to suggest they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The group is banned from travel within Myanmar and faces restrictions on access to education and healthcare.

Experiences such as Husaina’s are common among the Rohingya, confined to the squalid displacement camps outside Akyab (Sittwe). The stories are shared among residents, making many fearful of the multi-day journey. Most of the Rohingya this correspondent spoke to say they are now too scared to attempt it.

“There have been very few boats since the sailing season started in October and none at all this year, 2016. The key reason is that smugglers have no option for disembarkation due to Thailand being virtually closed. Another is the situation in Malaysia (where) there are regular immigration raids,” Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group which tracks migration, told Myanmar Now.

Malaysian police have carried out arrests of asylum seekers queuing up at the offices of the U.N. refugee agency in the last week or so, and some 2,500 Rohingya are currently held in immigration detention centres across Malaysia, Lewa said.

“The majority of Rohingya who arrived over the last two, three years are unregistered and jobs have become really difficult to find… The community feels very vulnerable,” she added.

Matthew Smith, executive director of Thailand-based human rights group Fortify Rights, agrees numbers leaving Arakan (Rakhine) have dropped, even though it is difficult to quantify the decrease in departures due to the clandestine nature of the voyages.

He warned, however, that the transnational trafficking rings have not been dismantled and “are poised to resume their activities at the first opportunity.”

Note: Changes have been made, Myanmar Now is not responsible for these.

Source: Myanmar Now