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Why we Rohingya refugees risk our lives at sea

‘I put my life in the hands of smugglers and traffickers and arrived safely. Those still lost at sea today cannot speak up.’

Rohingya refugees crew a fishing boat near Cox’s Bazar
Rohingya refugees crew a fishing boat near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in March 2018. Rights groups say hundreds of Rohingya are now stranded on ships on the Indian Ocean after attempting to reach Malaysia. (Clodagh Kilcoyne/REUTERS)

I know why desperate people risk their lives on dangerous trafficking routes: I was one of them.

Like many here in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, I have been watching in horror as another human trafficking crisis unfolds on the Bay of Bengal. Rights groups say at least two boats, filled with hundreds of Rohingya, have been stranded at sea for weeks. The government in Malaysia, their destination, won’t allow them to land. Bangladesh, from where they left, may not allow them to return. 

Due to fears about the coronavirus, governments are turning these boats away rather than providing safe haven. A separate boat came ashore in Bangladesh in April; survivors said dozens on board had died after their ship turned back from Malaysia. People are being pushed back to the open sea and left to die.

Hundreds of lives are at risk: they’re Rohingya men, women, and children – each one with a family and a story to tell, just like me.

“People are being pushed back to the open sea and left to die.”

In 2012, I was a student living in my ancestral home of northern Rakhine State in Myanmar. We lived with far-reaching restrictions that made it feel like I was born into a life of barriers and discrimination. 

We couldn’t move freely. I couldn’t even visit a friend in a neighbouring village without a permission letter from authorities, who would interrogate us with each simple request.

We even had to ask local officials for permission to marry.

Many of us couldn’t get an education. I was one of the lucky ones. But at school I was never equal in the eyes of my teachers, and other students called me racial slurs. I was tired of listening to it. The Rohingya and our neighbours, the Rakhine people, have their differences, but I wondered why there was so little respect between two communities that have lived side by side for generations.

But I hit my lowest point in 2012, when a wave of violent conflict erupted in our communities. More than 100,000 people, many of them Rohingya, were forced into camps in other parts of the state. The restrictions on us Rohingya grew even tighter.

Schools were shut down. After years of studying, I was unable to take my high school graduation exam. I was 17 and on the verge of completing school, but suddenly it felt like there was no future at all for me in my own country. I knew I could not stay in Myanmar.

So I decided to leave.

But there are no internships, no job placement schemes, no study abroad programmes for people like me. In a country where my very citizenship is denied, I didn’t even have a passport. This is why I connected with a smuggler, who told me he knew somewhere I could live in peace. He said I would be free to move anywhere I wanted, and even continue my education and achieve my career goals. He told me he could take me to India – for a price.

I was terrified and confused. I didn’t know whether to believe him. I cried and cried, but I couldn’t help thinking that such a place must exist. 

This is why I left. In July that year, I paid the smuggler to take me from Myanmar, crossing the mountains for three days, to neighbouring Bangladesh. From there, we continued to India for another six days. We walked or took buses, hiding so we wouldn’t be caught. I felt terrified each time I saw someone who looked like a police officer or a soldier.

I would spend more than six years in India. It wasn’t easy, but compared to the restrictions in Myanmar, I finally had an opportunity to live. I went back to school and graduated. I found a job working with a local NGO, helping with translations on health and education issues for other Rohingya like me.

While I thrived, things were getting worse for my family back home in Rakhine State. In August 2017, Myanmar’s army swept through the northern townships, including my home in Maungdaw, forcing some 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh over the same mountains I crossed five years earlier.

My mother was among the survivors of this genocide. At the same time, anti-Rohingya rhetoric was on the rise in India; I felt the situation was deteriorating for refugees there as well. So I packed up my life and left – again relying on a smuggler – so I could re-unite with my mother and the rest of my family in Bangladesh’s camps.

I am one of the lucky ones: I put my life in the hands of smugglers and traffickers and arrived safely – twice. Those still lost at sea today cannot speak up to tell you about their own journeys.

“When will this end? How long will the world watch as other human beings die at sea in this horrible way? Don't we have the right to live on land?”

This isn't the first time a trafficking crisis has threatened my community. In 2015, thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis were also stranded after traffickers abandoned people at sea. At the peak of the crisis, tens of thousands of people each year would make the dangerous journey by boat and land across the Bay of Bengal. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that at least one in every 69 people who attempt this voyage have died.

People jump onto these boats despite knowing the risks. When will this end? How long will the world watch as other human beings die at sea in this horrible way? Don't we have the right to live on land?

My request to world leaders and to policymakers is to think of us Rohingya as your brothers and sisters. We need your help – and so do the hundreds of Rohingya still adrift at sea. The entire international community is responsible for the trafficking crisis, because all humans deserve protection regardless of their citizenship status.

In Myanmar, we Rohingya live like birds kept in cages – blind and deaf to the outside world. In Bangladesh, we’re grateful to be safe, but we survive in fragile tents and on humanitarian rations; these cannot be our homes forever. 

Our people want nothing more than to be free, so they are willing to try anything to find a better life – no matter the risk. We have nothing left to lose.

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