Traffickers’ jungle prison camps on the Thai-Malaysian border ‘operating for years’, say Rohingya migrants in Malaysia.
Susan Cunningham, Kuala Lumpur
Mizzima Weekly, August 20, 2015
[This article appeared in Myanmar’s Mizzima Weekly print magazine in 2015 but not online. I decided to post it here more than a year later because the Rohingya homeland in northern Rakhine State is once again attracting international media coverage. Even Malaysian PM Najib wants to take advantage of the crisis this round. The spotlight won’t last long. There was another brief international moment in spring 2015 when the overloaded boats were drifting around the Andaman Sea and various governments vowed at a high-profile multinational meeting in Bangkok that the recent arrivals in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand would be resettled in third countries within a year. In the weeks after, though, I was unable to interest any international media outlets in why thousands of stateless Rohingya risk their lives to reach Malaysia each year or how they live illegally once they get there. Fortunately, Mizzima was interested.
As for that one-year deadline? Who knows or cares? When it was coming up in 2016, I emailed the NGOs and individuals who last year appeared to have some knowledge and interaction with Rohingya (not to be confused with the much greater number who tweeted relentlessly, often spreading baseless rumors and phony images, but turned out to be useless as sources). Only one person replied. She said she heard that the Rohingya boat people who had arrived in northern Sumatra in 2015 had made their way across the Straits of Malacca to Malaysia, but she had no details. (I’ve since heard that men made that journey, but women and children stayed in Aceh.) That movement is interesting because the Acehnese were very welcoming to their fellow Muslims last year; my guess is that the Rohingya wanted to join relatives in Malaysia. The trial in Thailand of more than 100 people involved in trafficking Rohingya ultimately convicted 62 persons, including an army general, two provincial politicians and many local businessmen. Malaysia has displayed much less interest in prosecuting alleged traffickers. Twelve police officers were arrested but charges were dropped without a trial in March 2017. I know that, while not surprised by that outcome, Rohingya in Malaysia must be especially distressed that no Malaysian immigration officials were charged. How difficult would it be to trace the holders of those mysterious Maybank and CIMB accounts where ransom payments were deposited? It’s difficult to take the Malaysian government’s expressions of concern for Rohingya welfare too seriously.
It will be interesting to see if Justin Trudeau’s grandiose statements mean that Canada will begin to accept Rohingya for resettlement. At the time I wrote this article, the US was the only country resettling Rohingya from Malaysia; that had been the situation for many years. The conditions and work prospects for Rohingya in Bangladesh were far worse than in Malaysia even before tens of thousands of Rohingya arrived there in in the final months of 2016, after fleeing attacks by the Myanmar army in their homeland of northern Rakhine State. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh may therefore be the first priority for resettlement in a third country.]
While traffickers’ jungle prisons along the Thai-Malaysian border were first widely exposed by Reuter’s reports published almost two years ago, they were well known to Rohingya in Myanmar and Malaysia for more than a decade.
Sultan Ahmed bin Ahmed Hussein, the new president of the Rohingya Society of Malaysia (RSM), arrived in Malaysia in 2012 by way of a border jungle prison. The 2001 Sittwe University graduate had been working in Rakhine State for GRET, a French non-governmental organization involved in agricultural development. After the 2012 communal riots, the French staff left the state and he was interrogated by the police. “They wanted money,” he recalled earlier this month. “Some of my friends were arrested. Some were shot and killed.” After he left his home in Buthidaung to stay with friends in Maungdaw, he heard that back home “thirty police had descended on my house, so I knew I had to leave.” His wife and four children are still in Myanmar (Burma).
Beginning with a Thai fishing boat, the cost and route of passage to the Malaysian town of Butterworth via Thailand were common knowledge in Maungdaw by then: 6,000 Malaysia ringgit (US$2,000) or the equivalent up front, followed by another 6,000 ringgit to be paid into traffickers’ bank accounts once the passengers had arrived somewhere in the vicinity of the Malaysian-Thai border.
In Sultan Ahmed’s case, the traffickers “only lied” about a few things, he said: “They said I would stay in a nice place in Thailand and the boat would have chairs and air-conditioning.” Instead, he sat on a deck of a Thai fishing boat for eight days with 255 other passengers, including nine women and three children. They were given was only one meal per day. The boat was tossed by waves so huge, “I almost died.”
After Sultan Ahmed’s boat docked at Ranong, Thailand, passengers were taken by pick-up truck to a place somewhere close to the border, perhaps close to the east coast, and then walked to “a fenced-in place in the jungle” where they stayed for six days. Outside the fence was a “guard with a large gun.” There were no toilets or washing facilities. His relatives in Malaysia received a phone call that he had arrived and were given a choice of Maybank and CIMB bank account numbers to deposit another 6,000 ringgit “but no names. It’s all based on trust,” he said. After traffickers confirmed the deposit, he walked with a group for about an hour through the jungle until they reached a road and a taxi, in which the seats had been ripped out. Eleven people squeezed in. After arriving at a “nice place” in Butterworth where he could wash and change clothing, his relatives arrived.
Fishing and cargo boats with six hundred or seven hundred passengers – the numbers on some of the Andaman Sea boats set adrift this spring – are not unusual, said Sultan Ahmed and other RSM members earlier this month. They talked at the modest society headquarters office on the second floor of a concrete shophouse in a Kuala Lumpur suburb. They said that passengers sometimes have been so tightly packed on boats they were unable to move and that journeys sometimes lasted several weeks or a month. As a result, many have arrived in Malaysia with leg paralysis that sometimes lasts a year.
Shomin Soe Mint, a teacher in a makeshift school for Rohingya children a few kilometers from the RSM office, came by a route nearly identical to Sultan Ahmed’s. He also fled Myanmar in 2012. He knew beforehand about the standard 6,000 ringgit fees and also was able to rely on relatives in Malaysia to make the final payment. Both he and his wife had been working for UN agencies in Rakhine State before the riots and felt in danger when foreign staff left the state. His wife and two young sons arrived a few months after him, following a similar route that included the stop-over in a jungle prison. Today his wife is working for the United Nations in Kuala Lumpur.
From Myanmar to Malaysia: A Short History
Rohingya have been moving to Malaysia and quietly living there for decades but their routes became more dangerous when they could no longer obtain passports—from either Myanmar or Bangladesh.
Despite the confusion about whether Rohingya ever held full-fledged Myanmar citizenship, some Rohingya obtained Myanmar passports with an ID card until the early 1980s. They were then able to fly to Malaysia and other countries. Throughout the 1990s, many Rohingya also arrived in Malaysia with Bangladeshi passports, sometimes directly by plane and sometimes by way of other countries. That option closed in 2003, when Bangladeshi citizens were issued government ID cards that became a prerequisite for obtaining a passport. Before that, many Rohingya who had entered Bangladesh subsequently obtained Bangladeshi passports for a price.
Anwar Ahmad bin Ahmad, who will be finally be resettled from Malaysia this month, obtained a Bangladeshi passport that way “in 1991 or 1992” when he left Maungdaw for Bangladesh “at 16 or 17.” The passport was a genuine one issued by the Bangladeshi government, he says, “but the person was fake.” The passport enabled him to fly to Bangkok, where he stayed for a few months before traveling to Malaysia, where he has lived illegally for 23 years. In recent years he has worked with the Rohingya Society of Malaysia (RSM)’s branch office in Penang. Many of the other Rohingya that arrived in Bangkok around the same time as he did chose to fly on to Qatar, Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries to look for work, he said.
Real Passports, Fake People
When they were no longer able to get Bangladeshi passports in 2003, more Rohingya turned to Thai fishing boats to travel without documentation from Myanmar to Malaysia. In the beginning, the boats were relatively small and only carried 60 or 70 passengers, RSM President Sultan Ahmed explained. They soon became larger, squeezing in at least 200 passengers. Women and children began coming in large numbers in 2011. In 2012, large cargo boats were pressed into service; these could accommodate 600 or 700 passengers, as was seen this May in some of the boats set adrift in the Andaman Sea by traffickers.
Some boats brought their passengers directly to Malaysia, usually docking in the resort island of Langkawi. The passengers then stayed in houses elsewhere in Malaysia until the ransom payment was made. Those arriving in Thailand docked in Satun or Ranong and then were smuggled across the Thai-Malaysian border, staying in either houses or jungle camps along the way.
Agreeing with other reports, Sultan Ahmed and Anwar Ahmad said that traffickers were Rohingya, Burmans, and Bangladeshis, operating with the cooperation of Malaysia immigration authorities. This interview took place just two days after the U.S. State Department issued its annual Trafficking in Persons report, which upgraded Malaysia from the lowest Tier 3 rank to Tier 2, while Thailand remained at the Tier 3 level.
Only One Resettlement Country
Some Western commentators criticized the upgrade, saying it was motivated by the US desire to fast-track a trade deal with Malaysia. Yet the two Rohingya refugees had no opinion about the upgrade, instead emphasizing that without US “pressure” Malaysia would treat undocumented migrants much more harshly. “Without the American voice, Rohingya might die. It’s just because of that that [undocumented] people are allowed to land,” Sultan Ahmed said.
With passports and tourist visas, many long-staying Myanmar people (such as Chins and Kachins), Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and other nationalities still arrive legally in Malaysia by plane or land; they then overstay their visas, and work in construction, restaurants, hotels, factories, stores and plantations, often for years on end.
Unlike Thailand, Malaysia has no work permit system for low-skilled foreign workers. According to RSM staff, 95% of Rohingya workers in Malaysia can be found on construction sites, where they typically earn 50 ringgit (about $16) per day, more than double what they would earn in Thailand. The wages are sufficient to provide a standard of living on par with lower middle-class Malaysians but there is no path for Rohingya to obtain permanent resident status in Malaysia, which Rohingya say is due to their lack of passports. In short, as they often say, “there is no future” in Malaysia. They manage their own makeshift schools for their children up to the age of 14 but are unable to send them to Malaysian schools after that.
Chin, Rohingya, Rakhines, Kachins
No one in the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur answered phone calls but, according to the main agency website, there are only 40,000 stateless people in Malaysia among 99,381 “refugees”; and 51,240 “asylum seekers.” However, the Asia-Pacific Parliamentarians’ Union and the RSM estimate 100,000 Rohingya are living in Malaysia. RSM estimates that, of these, between 20,000 and 25,000 are women and 15,000 are children.
And, according to a website of the US State Department: “As of April 2013, there were 102,070 persons of concern registered with UNHCR in Malaysia of which 93,600, or 92 percent, are from Burma (32,360 Chin, 26,910 stateless Rohingya from Burma’s Rakhine State, 7,210 Rakhines, 10,540 Burmese Muslims, 3,590 Mon, 12,990 Kachins and other ethnic minorities). In addition, some 8,460 asylum-seekers and refugees from various countries – primarily Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Sri Lanka – are registered with UNHCR in Malaysia.”
There are many Rohingya organisations in Malaysia and many social service organisations that serve them, but RSM is the largest. It has about 40,000 members and branches in Kedah, Perak, Penang, Johor Bahru, Kelantan, and Melaka. Until this July, RSM was headed by Dr Abud Hamid. After more than 20 years in Malaysia, he and his family were resettled in the United States in July. RSM does the preliminary interviews and paperwork for those wishing to apply for refugee status from the UN Refugee Agency. The next steps are taken by the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), which files an application with the UN.
The applicant then gets a card from UN Refugee Agency certifying that he or she is an “asylum seeker.” A lucky card-holder may eventually qualify as a refugee, officially known as a “person of concern”; these people are issued a so-called refugee card entitling them to be considered for resettlement. There can be long waits for either card and then a further wait before resettlement. Anwar Ahmad bin Ahmad applied for refugee status in 1995 and received a refugee card in 2003, but only this month will he be resettled in Oregon in the United States.
Only One Resettlement Country
On the other hand, RSM’s new president, Sultan Ahmed bin Ahmed Hussein, only arrived in Malaysia in 2012 after the communal riots in Rakhine State, yet he already holds a refugee card. His case proceeded quickly because his former employer, a French NGO, was able to confirm the dangerous circumstances under which he was forced to leave Rakhine State. In the past, Australia and Canada accepted small numbers of Rohingya but in recent years the United States has been the only country to accept Rohingya for resettlement, according to RSM staff. In 2014, 6,500 people originating in Myanmar but living in Malaysia were resettled in the United States. While he does not know for certain how many of these were Rohingya, Sultan Ahmed said that he has heard an estimate of 400.
Getting classified by the UN as a refugee eligible for resettlement doesn’t bring an allowance; most card holders continue to work illegally while awaiting resettlement. Nor does Malaysia officially guarantee any protection to holders of either card. In practice, displaying an asylum seeker card or refugee card is often sufficient to discourage Malaysian police from arresting a migrant and sending him or her to a government immigration detention hall.
Like migrant workers of other nationalities, however, Rohingya do frequently end up in these detention halls with a sentence of three to four months but if the detainees have no place to go upon release, “they might get sent back to detention camp for one to two years,” Sultan Ahmed said. “People inside can’t contact their relatives but if you have a passport or a [refugee or asylum seekers] card, you maybe can visit them,” he said. Ω