Rohingya still dream of fleeing poverty
The boats that once brought Rohingya to an uncertain fate on Thai shores have stopped sailing. But the poverty and the persecution that spurred their journeys continue, reports Shaikh Azizur Rahman
Twenty-one-year-old Rohingya man Saifullah had long dreamed of boarding a boat in his adopted home of Bangladesh and setting sail for Malaysia, where he hoped to break the cycle of poverty that afflicts his ethnic group.
Then last year, just after he had saved enough for the voyage, Saifullah heard the stories of how Thai authorities were capturing Rohingya boatpeople then setting them adrift in powerless boats, with deadly consequences. The snakeheads behind the voyages and the authorities in Bangladesh heard about it too, and the people-smuggling route which had attracted thousands of Rohingya every winter was shut down, almost overnight.
That was one year ago. Exactly how many lives have been saved as a result is impossible to say. Compared with the hundreds who died and the survivors of the nightmarish voyages, adrift without food or water, Saifullah is one of the lucky ones.
But Saifullah isn't grateful. He's angry.
'I worked very hard, from morning through midnight and it took me three years to save enough to pay for my journey up to Malaysia,' he said recently in his bamboo-and-plastic shack in a squalid Rohingya colony outside Cox's Bazar.
'When some of my friends took the boats from Cox's Bazar in 2008, I even told them that within a year I would be joining them in Malaysia. But now I doubt I can reach there easily, even though I have the money. It's frustrating.'
Although the traumatised survivors of the Thai expulsion policy have vowed never to seek their fortune abroad again, many other young Rohingya men feel the same as Saifullah.
They still toil in poverty and dream of better jobs in nearby Malaysia, which is viewed as a Muslim promised land of prosperity and opportunity. If anything, their lot has worsened in the 12 months since the Sunday Morning Post exposed the Thai abandonment policy in January last year. Bangladeshi authorities, alarmed by the revelations that most of the journeys started in Cox's Bazar, launched a crackdown on Rohingya illegal immigrants from Myanmar. Members of the squalid Rohingya settlements who have not been deemed refugees - including Saifullah - now live in fear of arrest.
Saifullah, an illiterate rickshaw puller, said he crossed into Bangladesh from Myanmar with his wife and their one-year-old daughter in 2006. His goal from the outset was to somehow reach Malaysia within a few years and earn a better livelihood.
Last year's revelations put paid to that. Saifullah said that after Bangladeshi police launched a crackdown on illegal Rohingya immigrants, he was forced to give up his job. He and his family have been in hiding since November.
'To escape persecution in Myanmar I fled to Bangladesh. Now I am jobless and have virtually gone underground here. In this situation I desperately need to escape to Malaysia,' he said. 'I still hope that the Malaysian route will somehow reopen for us and the agents will be able to take me to that country soon, before we perish here.'
In previous winters, the snakeheads would gather desperate men like Saifullah at points along the Bangladeshi coastline and in Myanmar's Rakhine state. Between November and January, when the seasonal winds were at their most benign, from 3,000 to 5,000 would set off, hugging the coastline as they sailed furtively towards Thailand, from where they would make their way overland to Malaysia.
No travel documents were required by the snakeheads, and, if all went well, no border checkpoints were encountered, making the route appealing to the undocumented Rohingya. The route became so successful that hundreds of non-Rohingya Bangladeshis began joining the journeys in 2007 and 2008. After all, a legitimate journey to Malaysia would cost 150,000 taka (HK$16,600), while the snakeheads charged 20,000 taka to Thailand and another 60,000 taka or more for safe passage to Malaysia.
But on January 12, 2009, the Post first reported the now-halted Thai policy of casting Rohingya adrift. More reports followed in the next weeks as it emerged that hundreds of boatpeople had died under nightmarish circumstances. Photos documented the secret detention of Rohingya on the Thai island of Koh Sai Daeng. It was soon being reported by the BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera and other international media organisations.
'As soon as newspapers and TV channels reported of the torture by Thailand, planned trips by some boats were cancelled,' said Zakir Hossain, a Rohingya tourist guide in Saint Martin's Island in the northeastern Bay of Bengal.
Hossain said the suspension of the illegal snakehead service was a blow to the 230,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, 90 per cent of whom live in squalor outside official refugee camps.
As the persecution of the shunned Muslim minority continues in Myanmar, Rohingya continue to flee across the border to Bangladesh. Despite being fellow Muslims, Rohingya are not received well in Bangladesh, a poor nation struggling to provide for its own burgeoning population. To keep a check on the growing Rohingya community, Bangladesh last year resumed a policy of pushing illegal Rohingya across the border, and arresting other Rohingya immigrants in increasing numbers.
A reporter for the Cox's Bazar newspaper Apan Kantha, who recently visited Myanmar's Rakhine state - the home land of the Rohingya - said people's desire to flee continued unabated, regardless of the risks.
'Every [Rohingya] family I met in Rakhine state said to me that they found persecution by the Myanmese military intolerable and they would like to sneak out of the country,' the Bangladeshi journalist said.
'Almost every young Rohingya man in one village said that they had the dream of somehow landing in Malaysia. They knew of the torture and tragic death of their fellow boatpeople last year, yet they said they would still take the chance if the illegal sea and land route to Malaysia reopens.'
Police in Cox's Bazar reacted to last year's reports by taking action against boat owners and snakeheads. This was in spite of the long relationship between police and the smugglers, and some say it is only a matter of time before business resumes.
If the snakeheads become confident that Thailand will not repeat its actions of last winter and resume their business, they will find no shortage of desperate customers.
Farid Hossain, 23, a Rohingya neighbour of Saifullah said he was sure that the route to Malaysia would reopen next winter, or maybe the one after that. When it does, he will be ready with his fare, and a heart full of hope for a better life.
'The agents are very smart. They will discover a new route to take us to Malaysia, bypassing Thailand, if they need to. It will take some time. But I am sure they will help me enter Malaysia one day,' Farid said.
Saifullah, too, is undeterred. 'The hardship in Bangladesh is growing for us. If the service [to Malaysia] resumes, I am ready to take the risk. I'll be on the first boat.'