A Rohingya refugee describes his journey to Malaysia in the aftermath of the June 2012 ethnic clashes in Burma’s Rakhine State.
“I haven’t done anything, believe me! Why do you want to interview me? Please do not tell anyone that I am here. I will be arrested, and they will kill my family in Burma!”
It was a small room, its floor cluttered with household items. Mohammad Hamza sat in the middle, looking scared.
It was not easy to find the newly arrived Rohingyas in Malaysia who made it into the country after the outbreak of violence in Burma in June. According to Rohingya activists in Malaysia, no more than 17 people managed to get in, and these 17 were now in hiding. As Malaysia is a nonsignatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, all refugees in the country are considered illegal immigrants. As a result, they are always afraid of arrest, deportation, or detention.
It took some time to persuade Hamza to be photographed. Since coming to Malaysia two weeks ago, he hadn’t slept much. He showed signs of trauma, shaking his head and speaking nonstop, though hardly listening to the questions he was asked. Once, while speaking, he raised his hand, which carries a huge scar. A Rakhine neighbor had stabbed him many years ago during a dispute. When the violence began this time, Hamza took his first opportunity to escape and left almost his entire family behind. He was accompanied only by one of his sons. They hoped to join another son who has been living in Malaysia since the late 1990s.
Hamza explained why he left.
After the recent violence between the Rakhine and the Muslims, Muslims were not allowed to enter or cross Rakhine neighborhoods in the villages, he said.
“Muslims were also prevented from selling their products in the markets. A local group called Asura beat and killed Muslims. Houses were burned down, and our children could not attend school. We could not go to the hospital. Muslims could not move or travel anywhere. That is why we had to come here.”
Hamza left his village, Chaittapara, in the Mamra area by boat on July 27. After three days at sea, he and his fellow refugees landed and were driven by middle men to the town of Nyaungdon.
“Then we walked down the hills for four days, following our guides. They did not supply us with any food, and we had to buy four bags of rice from them for 20,000 kyat [U.S. $24]. After walking for another eight days, we reached a village, boarded another boat, and landed at a place called Pegu where we took shelter in a pagoda.”
“The next day, just after sunset, we rode on a three-wheeled scooter and were taken to the house of Haji Yousuf in Rangoon. We crossed Mawlamyine, Dawei, Munaung, and another part of Dawei and arrived at last in Kawthaung at 3:00 in the morning. It took 16 days to travel from my home to Pegu, and another 15 days to travel from Pegu to Kawthaung.”
“In Kawthaung we were put in a single room. Almost 60 of us [converging from several escape parties] were held there overnight. They gave us very little to eat, but at 4:00 a.m. they gave us a little food and told us to get ready to leave. We waited there until 9:00 at night, when an agent came to pick us up. We were then taken to Ranong by boat.”
“The sun was rising when we arrived, and we found ourselves at the base of a hill. We were terrified. We then came to a highway running along the Thai border, and we walked down the road. After a while we were placed inside a house. Our agent told us to exchange our remaining money, then a traveling vendor arrived and we exchanged our money and bought some food from him.”
“I ate some snacks with the money I still had, and after that I didn’t have a single penny left. When night came we were told to get ready. They didn’t give us anything more to eat, and we were then taken back to the place where we had originally arrived in Ranong. After a day there, we were given something to eat and were then put in a taxi. Then we were taken at night to another place, where we spent two days. The agent told us we would leave for Malaysia that night, and we came to a place called Golok.”
When Hamza reached Golok, on the Thai border with Malaysia, he began the last leg of his journey.
“We stayed in Thailand for four days. Then our traffickers told us to get ready. Three of us were put into the back of a car, and after a couple of hours the car pulled off the road. A man signaled to us from a palm garden, and we replied, entering the garden behind him. Since we could still be seen from the road, we were told to lie down, and we hid ourselves like this for several hours. Then our guide told us to move, so we followed him, walking for almost three kilometers.”
“Then we came to a road that had net fences on both sides, and we walked until we came to the road’s end. There the agent made a hole in the net and let us through. After entering Malaysia, we walked for another five or six miles through the jungle, and we crossed a few hills. At last we reached a place where a car was waiting for us. There were 17 of us when we began our journey for Malaysia. Out of those 17, 10 of us were put into that car. I don’t know what happened to the other seven.”
Hamza explained why he went to Malaysia, and not to Bangladesh:
“Bangladesh is a poor and heavily populated country, and the money is better in Malaysia. Also, we can move around more easily in Malaysia. The Malaysian people have not betrayed us. The Bangladesh government does not want us—they do not recognize us [as refugees]. The Bangladeshi people tell us to go back to Arakan and fight for our freedom. They think that taking refuge in Bangladesh will not be good for Bangladesh or for the Rohingyas.”
“The Bangladesh government tells us, ‘You Rohingyas are not our citizens. You are Burmese and must go back to Burma.’ But Rohingyas keep sneaking into Bangladesh in small groups. This is why the Bangladeshi people don’t like us anymore, and why I did not go to Bangladesh. We are not welcome in Malaysia either, but we came here to find some peace.”
Trafficking Rohingyas into Malaysia is big business. Traffickers in Bangladesh charge up to $1,000 for fake Bangladesh passports. Hamza’s older son, who has already been living in Malaysia for a while, had to borrow a large amount of money to bring his father and younger brother to Malaysia.
“I had to pay 8,000 ringgits [U.S. $2,608] to bring my father and younger brother here. And when I came here, I had to spend another 5,800 ringgits [U.S. $1,890] for myself. I now have a debt of 10,000 ringgits [approximately U.S. $3,260], and I don’t know how I will pay it back. Only Allah knows.”
Rohingyas on average earn 50-100 ringgits [approximately U.S. $30] a day in Malaysia. Many work at construction jobs, while others work as cleaners or grass cutters or in small businesses in the markets.
By the time the interview came to an end, Hamza was looking much more relaxed. He was happy to share his stories with an outsider, and he answered the final and obvious question: Would he ever go back to Burma if peace is restored, or if democracy is introduced?
“We will certainly go back if everything becomes normal—if we are allowed to study, if we are allowed to get higher positions in our jobs, if our demands are met. We will certainly go back. We will go back if the [Rakhines] do not torture us, if they don’t extort things from us. We left the country because we couldn’t endure the torture anymore. For now, we can escape, but in the future they may not allow us to do this. They will just kill us all.”