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A Deadly Journey

Why young Rohingya women from refugee camps in Bangladesh are undertaking a dangerous sea voyage to Malaysia to marry men they’ve never met

Zik Maulana/AP Images

After many months at sea, hundreds of Rohingya refugees landed in Aceh, Indonesia, in September.

Haresa counted the days by watching the moon wax and wane over the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. On a fishing boat with hundreds of others, she was crammed into a space so tight that she couldn’t even stretch her legs.

“People struggled like they were fish flopping around,” Haresa, 18, says of the other refugees on the boat. “Then they stopped moving.”

As the days bled into weeks, and the weeks into months, dozens of bodies were thrown overboard, some beaten and some starved, survivors say. Haresa’s aunt died, and then her brother.

Six months after she boarded the vessel in Bangladesh with hopes that human traffickers would ferry her to Malaysia for an arranged marriage, Haresa, who goes by one name, found sanctuary in Indonesia in September, along with almost 300 other Rohingya refugees. Her sister, 21, died two days after the boat landed.

Haresa counted the days by watching the moon grow and fade over the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. She was on a fishing boat with hundreds of others. The space that she had to cram into was so tight that she couldn’t even stretch her legs.

“People struggled like they were fish flopping around,” Haresa, 18, says of the other refugees on the boat. “Then they stopped moving.”

The days bled into weeks, and the weeks into months. During the voyage, dozens of bodies were thrown overboard. Some had been beaten and some had starved, survivors say. Haresa’s aunt died, and then her brother.

Haresa goes by one name. She had boarded the vessel six months earlier in Bangladesh. She had gone on the journey with hopes that human traffickers would take her to Malaysia for an arranged marriage. In September, she found sanctuary in Indonesia, along with almost 300 other Rohingya refugees. Her sister, 21, died two days after the boat landed.

Jim McMahon

Driven From Their Homes

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). In 2017, most of them were driven from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in what international authorities deem a government-sanctioned genocide (see “What Is Genocide?” below). Since then, they’ve been living in overcrowded refugee settlements in neighboring Bangladesh. Now, thousands of Rohingya have taken the perilous boat crossing to Malaysia, where many Rohingya scrape by as undocumented workers. Hundreds have died along the way.

Most of those now undertaking the trip, like Haresa, are girls and young women whose parents have promised them in marriage to Rohingya men already living in Malaysia. Two-thirds of those who landed in Indonesia in September with Haresa were female.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). In 2017, most of them were driven from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. International authorities have deemed what happened to be a government-sanctioned genocide (see “What Is Genocide?” below). Since then, the Rohingya have been living in overcrowded refugee settlements in neighboring Bangladesh. Some Rohingya have made it to Malaysia, where many of them scrape by as undocumented workers. Now, thousands more have taken the dangerous boat crossing to get there. Hundreds have died along the way.

Most of those now undertaking the trip, like Haresa, are girls and young women. Their parents have promised them in marriage to Rohingya men already living in Malaysia. Two-thirds of those who landed in Indonesia in September with Haresa were female.

Hundreds of Rohingya have died on the boat crossing to Malaysia.

Amira Bibi and her family escaped Myanmar as the military torched hundreds of Rohingya villages three years ago. The fourth of nine siblings, she says she knows her place in life.

“My parents are getting old, and my brothers are with their own families,” she says. “How long are my parents going to bear the burden of me?”

Through the matchmaking of a cousin in Malaysia who works as a grass-cutter, Bibi’s parents found a fiancé for her. She asked for details about the man, but only his name was provided, she says.

After surviving more than six months at sea in a failed attempt to reach her fiancé, Bibi spoke to him from Indonesia, a country away. The phone call lasted two minutes. “He sounded young,” she says. That’s all she knows about him.

Bibi initially told staff from the United Nations refugee agency that she was 15 years old, but later amended her age to 18. Child marriage is common among the Rohingya.

Amira Bibi and her family escaped Myanmar as the military torched hundreds of Rohingya villages three years ago. The fourth of nine siblings, she says she knows her place in life.

“My parents are getting old, and my brothers are with their own families,” she says. “How long are my parents going to bear the burden of me?”

Through the matchmaking of a cousin in Malaysia who works as a grass-cutter, Bibi’s parents found a fiancé for her. She asked for details about the man, but only his name was provided, she says.

Bibi spent more than six months at sea in a failed attempt to reach her fiancé. After surviving, she spoke to him from Indonesia, a country away. The phone call lasted two minutes. “He sounded young,” she says. That’s all she knows about him.

Bibi initially told staff from the United Nations refugee agency that she was 15 years old. She later amended her age to 18. Child marriage is common among the Rohingya.

Roger Lemoyne/UNICEF/Redux

Fleeing Myanmar during the genocide in 2017

Long History of Persecution

The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for centuries, well before the country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. But the Muslim minority group has long been persecuted by Myanmar’s majority population, which is Buddhist.

Starting in 2017, the Myanmar military and Buddhist mobs unleashed a frenzy of killing, rape, and arson in Rakhine State, including execution-style mass shootings and the burning of entire villages to the ground. The United Nations estimates at least 10,000 Rohingya were killed. The massacres sent more than 750,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.

More than 700,000 Rohingya still live in Kutupalong, the largest of five refugee camps in the southeastern corner of Bangladesh. Most of the shelters there are made out of bamboo and plastic sheeting, and the camp is intensely crowded. The difficult conditions and the fact that the refugees can’t get jobs or leave the camps without permission have prompted some to gamble on the desperate journey by boat to Malaysia in search of better prospects.

The Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for centuries. They were there long before the country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. But the Muslim minority group has long been ill treated by Myanmar’s majority population, which is Buddhist.

Starting in 2017, the Myanmar military and Buddhist mobs set off a rash of killing, rape, and arson in Rakhine State. The attacks included execution-style mass shootings and the burning of entire villages to the ground. The United Nations estimates at least 10,000 Rohingya were killed. The massacres sent more than 750,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh.

More than 700,000 Rohingya still live in Kutupalong. That is the largest of five refugee camps in the southeastern corner of Bangladesh. Most of the shelters there are made out of bamboo and plastic sheeting, and the camp is extremely crowded. The refugees can’t get jobs or leave the camps without permission. Those limitations and the difficult conditions have led some to gamble on the desperate journey by boat to Malaysia. They’ve been risking their lives in search of better prospects.

Rebecca Conway/The New York Times

A refugee camp for Rohingya in Bangladesh, 2018

With the coronavirus pandemic tightening borders, the journey by sea has gotten even more difficult. For months this year, boats laden with hundreds of Rohingya migrants drifted at sea, unable to find a safe haven. The authorities in Thailand and Malaysia repeatedly refused to let them in.

Fishermen in Aceh, on the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, are among the few who have welcomed the Rohingya. A battered trawler with about 100 refugees landed in June, followed by a larger boat in September.

“The question is how Southeast Asia as a region responds to this humanitarian crisis on its doorstep,” says Indrika Ratwatte, the director for Asia and the Pacific for the U.N. refugee agency.

The Bangladeshi government, struggling with its own vulnerable population amid the pandemic, has threatened to relocate thousands of Rohingya from the camps to a cyclone-prone islet in the Bay of Bengal. The island was uninhabited until the Bangladeshi Navy forced about 300 Rohingya—many of them women and children—to shelter there this summer, when their attempt to sail to Malaysia ended after months at sea.

A few months ago, several Rohingya died in clashes between different gangs in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, which is considered the largest settlement of refugees in the world. Some women say they venture out as little as possible to use public latrines for fear of sexual violence.

Borders are tightening because of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s made the journey by sea even more difficult. For months this year, boats filled with hundreds of Rohingya migrants drifted at sea. The authorities in Thailand and Malaysia repeatedly refused to let them in. That left them unable to find a safe haven.

Fishermen in Aceh, on the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, are among the few who have welcomed the Rohingya. A battered fishing boat with about 100 refugees landed in June. In September, a larger boat followed.

“The question is how Southeast Asia as a region responds to this humanitarian crisis on its doorstep,” says Indrika Ratwatte, the director for Asia and the Pacific for the U.N. refugee agency.

The Bangladeshi government has struggled with its own vulnerable population amid the pandemic. That’s caused the nation to threaten to relocate thousands of Rohingya from the camps. They’d be moved to a small cyclone-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. No one lived there until the Bangladeshi Navy forced about 300 Rohingya to shelter there this summer. Many of them were women and children whose attempt to sail to Malaysia ended after months at sea.

A few months ago, several Rohingya died in clashes between different gangs in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. It’s considered the largest settlement of refugees in the world. Some women say they go out as little as possible to use public latrines for fear of sexual violence.

Zik Maulana/AP Images

A boat crowded with Rohingya was found by fisherman off the coast of Indonesia in June.

Desperate to Leave

Shamsun Nahar, 17, says she was desperate to leave the camps, even though she had heard the stories of how dangerous the crossing could be. Her father, a cleric, found her someone to marry, a man from the same village in Rakhine who is working as a carpenter in Malaysia.

“I talked to him on a video call, and I liked him from every angle,” Shamsun says of their brief courtship by phone. “He was not too big, not too small. He looked good.”

Her fiancé was to pay $4,500 for her passage, she says. The spot she occupied for months on the boat was near the engine, so noisy that she couldn’t hear others’ voices.

The smugglers and brokers, both Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, beat them with plastic pipes, she says. Food was served on a plastic sheet smeared with remnants from the previous weeks, shrouding every meal with a putrid smell.

“I am safe now, but I am separated from my family and my fiancé,” says Shamsun, who arrived in Indonesia in September. “What will happen next? I do not know.”

Although previous waves of Rohingya who landed in Indonesia have mostly made their way to Malaysia, only a few from this year’s crossings have been able to unite with their families or future husbands.

Shamsun Nahar, 17, says she had heard the stories of how dangerous the crossing could be. Despite that, she was desperate to leave the camps. Her father, a cleric, found her someone to marry, a man from the same village in Rakhine. The man is working as a carpenter in Malaysia.

“I talked to him on a video call, and I liked him from every angle,” Shamsun says of their brief courtship by phone. “He was not too big, not too small. He looked good.”

Her fiancé was to pay $4,500 for her passage, she says. The spot she occupied for months on the boat was near the engine, so noisy that she couldn’t hear others’ voices.

The smugglers and brokers are both Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. They beat them with plastic pipes, she says. Food was served on a plastic sheet smeared with leftovers from the previous weeks. As a result, every meal had a rotten smell.

“I am safe now, but I am separated from my family and my fiancé,” says Shamsun, who arrived in Indonesia in September. “What will happen next? I do not know.”

Previous waves of Rohingya who landed in Indonesia have mostly made their way to Malaysia. But only a few from this year’s crossings have been able to unite with their families or future husbands.

How will Southeast Asia respond to this humanitarian crisis?

When Naemot Shah married his wife, Majuma Bibi, he was 14 and she was 12. They had grown up together. In 2014, when he was 18, Shah paid human smugglers to take him from Rakhine to Malaysia, a 28-day journey that nearly killed him, he says. His daughter was only six months old when he left. Three years later, his family fled to Bangladesh after the Myanmar military’s campaign of killings, rapes, and forced displacement against the Rohingya.

From a refugee camp in Bangladesh, Shah’s wife pleaded with him to pay for her and their daughter to join him in Malaysia. Knowing how risky the trip was, he refused. But his wife, whom Shah describes as “very clever,” quietly saved the money that he sent her from his job as a construction worker. In late March, she and her daughter boarded a fishing boat bound, they hoped, for where her husband lived.

“I was very upset that they went without my permission,” Shah says.

As news of mass drownings reached him, he assumed his family had died at sea. But in June, Shah, now 24, heard that a boat full of Rohingya refugees had landed in Indonesia. Scanning the crowds on a video, he recognized his wife and daughter.

“I never felt such happiness as the day I found out they were alive,” Shah says.

Other Rohingya in Malaysia have taken second or third wives, as Islam permits, he says. But he will not. Instead, he traveled to Indonesia to reunite with his wife and daughter.

“I will stick to one wife,” Shah says. “She traveled all this way, suffered this difficult time, for me.”

When Naemot Shah married his wife, Majuma Bibi, he was 14 and she was 12. They had grown up together. In 2014, when he was 18, Shah paid human smugglers to take him from Rakhine to Malaysia. It was a 28-day journey that nearly killed him, he says. His daughter was only six months old when he left. Three years later, his family fled to Bangladesh after the Myanmar military’s campaign of killings, rapes, and forced displacement against the Rohingya.

Shah’s wife and their daughter were stuck in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. She pleaded with him to pay for them to join him in Malaysia. Knowing how risky the trip was, he refused. But his wife, whom Shah describes as “very clever,” quietly saved the money that he sent her from his job as a construction worker. In late March, she and her daughter boarded a fishing boat bound, they hoped, for where her husband lived.

“I was very upset that they went without my permission,” Shah says.

As news of mass drownings reached him, he assumed his family had died at sea. But in June, Shah, now 24, heard that a boat full of Rohingya refugees had landed in Indonesia. Scanning the crowds on a video, he recognized his wife and daughter.

“I never felt such happiness as the day I found out they were alive,” Shah says.

Other Rohingya in Malaysia have taken second or third wives, as Islam permits, he says. But he will not. Instead, he traveled to Indonesia to reunite with his wife and daughter.

“I will stick to one wife,” Shah says. “She traveled all this way, suffered this difficult time, for me.”

Hannah Beech covers Southeast Asia for The New York Times.

Hannah Beech covers Southeast Asia for The New York Times.

What is Genocide?

The United Nations has called the violence against the Rohingya genocide. The term means a deliberate attempt to wipe out a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Here are some other atrocities classified as genocides.

DARFUR
Starting in 2003, Arab militia groups in western Sudan began killing more than 200,000 Black Sudanese in Darfur, a region in Sudan, and burning their villages.

RWANDA
In just 100 days in 1994, the country’s majority ethnic group, the Hutu, slaughtered about 800,000 minority Tutsi, often hacking them to death with machetes.

THE HOLOCAUST
Between 1933 and 1945, 6 million Jews, along with other groups the Nazis considered “undesirable,” were killed in Nazi concentration camps across Europe.

DARFUR
Starting in 2003, Arab militia groups in western Sudan began killing more than 200,000 Black Sudanese in Darfur, a region in Sudan, and burning their villages.

RWANDA
In just 100 days in 1994, the country’s majority ethnic group, the Hutu, slaughtered about 800,000 minority Tutsi, often hacking them to death with machetes.

THE HOLOCAUST
Between 1933 and 1945, 6 million Jews, along with other groups the Nazis considered “undesirable,” were killed in Nazi concentration camps across Europe.

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