Dream of Normal Life Drives Rohingya Girls to Perilous Sea Voyage

Dressed in an embroidered salmon-hued outfit and shiny silver boots, a girl looks seriously into the camera. It stands in stark contrast to the dark background – walls and a roof made of crossed bamboo sticks and plastic drapery sheets.

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The photo is sent to a network of family members and family friends who pass it on to potential brothers.

The Rohingya Muslim girl, Mubina Khatoon, was 13 years old on December 2, 2022, when she arrived in Bangladesh on a Malaysia-bound boat. Accompanying them were at least 32 more unmarried Rohingya girls and women from refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Hamida Khatoon, Mubina’s 20-year-old unmarried aunt, was also with her.

Rohingya refugee Mubina Khatoon, 13, poses for a photo before boarding a Malaysia-bound boat, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, December 2, 2022.

Rohingya refugee Mubina Khatoon, 13, poses for a photo before boarding a Malaysia-bound boat, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, December 2, 2022.

The boat, belonging to an illegal ferry service operated by human traffickers, has been missing since December 8, along with about 180 passengers on board, all Rohingya Muslim refugees.

In a statement issued Dec. 25, the refugee agency, or UNHCR, described the boat as “unseeworthy” and said it likely sank at sea, killing everyone on board.

Since the release of the UNHCR statement, gloom has descended on the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. More than a million members of the stateless Muslim minority call the hideous, overcrowded shanty colony their home.

Mubina’s father, Shah Alam, 35, is a daily wage labourer. He is one of the hundreds of refugees in the camp who had loved ones on board the missing boat and fear the worst.

“Mubina is the eldest of my four children. I don’t earn enough to arrange a wedding party and other necessities for my daughter or sister, here in Bangladesh. So we decided to send them to Muslim-majority Malaysia,” Alam told VOA in a telephone interview.

“My wife hasn’t eaten in days and keeps crying since we got the news of the boat drowning. … We all feel lost and disappointed,” he said.

His tone brightened, however, when he spoke of his family’s dreams of living in Malaysia.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, thousands of young men from Bangladesh and Myanmar have traveled to Malaysia and settled there with good jobs. They want to marry Rohingya women. A distant cousin in Malaysia said he could easily find brothers for Mubina find in Hamida.

“Our girls would be safe and happy there; the economic and living conditions of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh are cruel,” said Alam.

The promised land

Several girls in recent years have managed to achieve the Malaysian dream – one of an average life.

Surah Khatoon, whose husband died in Myanmar in 2016, now lives in Cox’s Bazar. Her eldest daughter, Sanowara Begum, now 20, married a Rohingya man in Malaysia after her arrival in January 2021.

“My son-in-law earns well as a construction worker. Sanowara is very happy with him and her son, who is now 1. Although I miss her often, it comforts me to remember that she is now leading a good life.” Khatoon said in a phone interview. She hopes to send her other children to Malaysia as well.

Rohingya refugee Surah Khatoon sits with her children in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, to talk to her daughter Sanowara Begum - who is in Malaysia - over a video call.  With the help of an illegal boat service, Sanowara reached Malaysia in 2021, married a Rohingya man and has been living there ever since.  (Mohammed Rezuwan Khan/VOA)

Rohingya refugee Surah Khatoon sits with her children in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, to talk to her daughter Sanowara Begum – who is in Malaysia – over a video call. With the help of an illegal boat service, Sanowara reached Malaysia in 2021, married a Rohingya man and has been living there ever since. (Mohammed Rezuwan Khan/VOA)

Between 2012 and 2015, a majority of the 100,000 Rohingya who took boats to Malaysia were young men, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which works to support the heavily persecuted Rohingya population and community movements. to monitor.

“These young men who arrived earlier have so far managed to repay their debts for their own trip and save some money to get married,” Lewa said in a telephone interview. So, men often offer to forego the customary dowry and pay part or all of a bride’s travel expenses to join them, she explained.

Soyed Alam, 28, is one such young man who works in a Kuala Lumpur restaurant after moving to Malaysia from Bangladesh in 2014.

Shy Alam said: “I wake up every day hoping to receive the news of the arrival of a suitable Rohingya girl in Malaysia from Bangladesh whom I can marry. Lack of Rohingya girls in Malaysia, and there are many others expected Men here like me.

However, settling in Malaysia is not an easy task for Rohingya refugees.

Until recently, the Malaysian government issued UNHCR refugee cards to Rohingya refugees entering the country. A UNHCR registered refugee can work freely anywhere. According to the UN, about 57% of the 181,000 officially registered refugees in Malaysia are Rohingya.

But for the past few months, the UNHCR has not registered the new Rohingya refugees entering Malaysia, allowing them to enter secretly via Indonesia with the help of traffickers.

Most of the Rohingya who have reached Malaysia in recent months are unregistered refugees under the threat of arrest. They live inconspicuously to avoid the police, settling in forest plantations, agricultural lands and rural areas.

No woman land – or sea

The threats of drowning, dehydration and starvation are not the only ones faced by the Rohingya girls and women who undertake the illegal sea voyage. Travel to Malaysia from Bangladesh for the Rohingya involves both sea and land-and-sea routes. Gender-based violence – especially incidents of sexual abuse on the way – are common.

Most Rohingya girls are vulnerable to sexual abuse because they travel without guardians, Jaan Mohammed, a refugee in Cox’s Bazar, told VOA by phone.

Fishing boats wait in a harbor near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.  Human traffickers use such boats to illegally transport Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.  (Noor Hossain/VOA)

Fishing boats wait in a harbor near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Human traffickers use such boats to illegally transport Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. (Noor Hossain/VOA)

“I am aware of many such incidents of abuse. But survivors rarely choose to talk about the abuse, fearing it will jeopardize their marriage prospects,” said Mohammed.

“A female relative got married three months after her arrival in Malaysia. But only four months after the marriage, she gave birth to a child. It was later revealed that she was raped by several men during her land-and-sea journey,” he said. .

Activist Lewa said that during the sea voyage Rohingya women and girls on the boat were raped or sexually harassed by crew members but also sometimes by Rohingya smugglers on board.

She describes one such incident of abuse in 2020.

“In that case, some women who landed in Indonesia said that the smuggler on the boat selected some good-looking girls among female passengers and offered them to the crew for the night,” she said.

Even risks of death and sexual abuse deter Rohingya families in Bangladesh from sending their daughters to Malaysia.

Rawshidullah, who like many Rohingya does not use his last name, saw his 16-year-old daughter, Umme Salima, when she died on the 2nd.

“We took Salima’s photo before her departure and sent it to a cousin of hers who is married to a Rohingya man in Malaysia. She had promised to arrange a groom for my daughter. It was a great relief for us family,” he said.

Echoing Rawshidullah’s sentiments, Shah Alam accompanied his daughter to the boat to say goodbye, knowing he would never see her again. The Rohingya do not have legal travel documents and cannot return to Myanmar or Cox’s Bazar after leaving for another country.

“I knew I would probably never see my daughter in person again,” Rawshidullah said. “What I wasn’t prepared for was missing her.”

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