The mass arrest of nearly 100 Rohingya Muslims hiding in safe houses in Myanmar’s biggest city last week cast a harsh spotlight on the lengths to which the persecuted minority go to escape the country, and how a small mistake can shatter dreams of a better life.
Rohingya, who are not recognized as citizens in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and lack access to many basic services, have been fleeing their homes in Rakhine state for decades. But conditions worsened after a 2017 crackdown drove 740,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in a violent campaign that is now the focus of a genocide investigation.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has made it even harder for Rohingya to escape, with heightened security in Myanmar and at borders in other countries wary of letting in refugees during the outbreak. Last year boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya people made dangerous journeys to Malaysia and Indonesia where most were eventually allowed to land after outcry from rights groups.
Going by sea is now considered too difficult and those caught last week were attempting to get to Malaysia overland, according to interviews with several relatives and one detainee. This involves criss-crossing the country and going over the border to Thailand first before attempting to get into Malaysia.
They first had to pay the equivalent $3,700 to a team of brokers who will guide them through a journey that takes approximately two months. The first step is getting out of heavily militarized Rakhine state. Then they had to make it hundreds of miles away to the commercial capital Yangon, alternating between vehicles and hiding out in the woods near unfamiliar towns. When caught they were holed up in two houses in a suburb of Yangon for four days as food supplies dwindled.
But a Rohingya man left one of the houses after being locked up there for a few days, feeling the need to get out and escape mistreatment by traffickers. But he did not blend in well enough and soon attracted attention. Police arrived, and he was forced to direct them to the hideouts, where 99 men, women and children were found. They were sent to a quarantine facility where five tested positive for coronavirus, according to officials and local media reports.
VICE World News interviewed one of the detainees by phone. He said he was heading to Malaysia because there were no jobs or opportunities in Rakhine state, where he lived in an internal displacement camp following intercommunal violence in 2012 that killed hundreds. His parents sold their house to pay for the expenses of the trip.
The man, whose identity is not being revealed for fear of retribution in detention, confirmed that some of the Rohingya in the group had been beaten by traffickers. “They gave us trouble in the forest. They let us walk on empty stomachs.”
Others left home without saying goodbye.
“My son said nothing about him leaving for Malaysia,” said Abdul Dill, the 60-year-old father of one of the men in the group.
The son called his father on Jan. 2 and said they were locked in a room by traffickers. Now they were asking for money to help him continue the journey. Abdul sold his farm and house to help his son and make the payment.
Another Rohingya man from Rakhine state named Ikram Muller said he was devastated to learn that his brother was one of the 99 detainees, hoping he would make it successfully to Malaysia.
“I wouldn’t let him go if I knew he would get arrested,” he said.
His family sold their cattle and farm to fund the journey. Muller’s brother is now detained in Yangon, and his future is uncertain. The only thing that is certain is that he will not be going to Malaysia, which he had dreamed of resettling in despite the difficult lives of refugees there.
Hothi Zar, 35, said that one of her sons and a son-in-law were also in the group. They left home two months ago in the early morning without letting her know. A few days later, a trafficker called her and asked for approximately $1,500 and said they would bring her son and son-in-law to Malaysia. If she did not pay, they would beat them.
“I heard my son was also crying on the phone. So I transferred the money,” she said.
A Rohingya politician from Yangon named Kyaw Soe Aung said that around 3,000 Rohingya were arrested for undocumented travel from 2010 to 2017. They were put in prison for a maximum of two years under immigration charges. He said the conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where freedom of movement is severely limited and health care scarce, reflected how desperate Rohingya are to get out despite risks.
“Even an animal would not stay in that kind of trapped situation. They are running away taking huge risks without knowing whether they will end up dead or alive,” he told VICE World News, alleging that these trips cannot be taken without some sort of involvement of local officials along the way.
“It would be impossible for authorities not to know about these undocumented travelers. Because Rakhine State has more checkpoints than any other places in the country, especially during the pandemic for travel restrictions,” he said.
Four suspected traffickers were arrested and face charges, according to deputy police chief Tin Maung Lwin in Yangon’s Shwepyitar township, where the Rohingya were hiding.
He said he was not sure whether the 99 would be sent back to Rakhine state or charged with undocumented travel and imprisoned. A number of Rohingya arrested on the same offenses were released from jails in Yangon during the pandemic in order to ease crowding.
“We will have to follow the instructions from the higher level whether we will take action against them or not,” he said.