After Fleeing Burma, Rohingya Lead Clandestine Lives in Thailand

By Thein Lei Win 28 May 2014

BANGKOK — For the past three months, Hasina and her three young children have been holed up in a tiny one-room apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok, too fearful to venture more than a few meters from their home in case the Thai authorities arrest them and deport them back to Burma.

Like tens of thousands of other Muslim Rohingya who have fled violence and persecution in Burma, Hasina, who did not want to give her full name, embarked on a long, dangerous sea journey in search of a safer and freer future.

She and her family made it to the relative safety of Thailand. But statelessness haunts the Rohingya wherever they go.

Thailand does not have a refugee framework or national asylum system. Under Thai immigration law, foreigners without valid visas are considered illegal immigrants and risk arrest, detention and deportation, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.

“We don’t know who to ask for help,” said Hasina’s husband, a Rohingya who has been in Thailand for seven years, scraping a living by selling street food.

Matthew Smith, director of Fortify Rights, a human rights group that published a February report exposing abusive Burmese government policies toward the Rohingya, said the Rohingya in Thailand should be defined as “at-risk refugees,” not illegal immigrants.

“They face enormous dangers in Thailand without the protection of the government or UN agencies,” he said. “Human traffickers, exploitative employers and other risks abound, and they face deteriorating health that often accompanies situations of abuse and migration.”

In Burma’s Arakan State, around 1.1 Muslim Rohingya live without the rights of citizenship, despite having lived on the western strip of land for generations.

Under the reformist government that took power in 2011, Buddhist-majority Burma has endured an upsurge in communal bloodshed.

Two bouts of violence in 2012 displaced some 140,000 people, mainly Rohingya, to squalid refugee camps. The sectarian killings have also prompted an exodus of Rohingya by sea, in one of the biggest movements of boat people since the Vietnam War ended.

Rights activists have said the flood of refugees from Burma would continue this year as their living conditions in Arakan deteriorate further.

In March, nationalist mobs attacked the offices of aid agencies in Sittwe, the Arakan State capital, leading to the suspension of humanitarian activities for four weeks. The United Nations has warned of an increased risk of waterborne diseases due to the disruption of aid.

International condemnation has failed to persuade Burma’s nominally civilian government to take measures to improve conditions for the Rohingya, a group that Burma’s leaders characterize as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

No Other Choice

Hasina, whose village is around seven miles (10 km) from Sittwe, said she was aware of the dangers of her escape from Burma with her children, which cost her close to US$4,000. Her husband, who travelled to Thailand several years before her, borrowed money from friends to finance their journey.

“We knew all about the dangers. We knew how expensive it is, how [the brokers] torture you when you cannot pay and that women are sometimes raped,” she said, sitting on a bare concrete floor with her back against the wall.

Yet she believed her family did not have a choice.

After the 2012 riots, the money her husband sent home was no longer enough because of soaring costs. The price of rice almost doubled. Sittwe became a no-go zone for the Rohingya and jobs vanished.

Several years ago, the authorities took the only document the family had—a household registration card—which, despite promises, was never replaced.

“Most of the men and young people in our village are now abroad, so there are only the elderly, women and children. We’re scared that if something happens, there’s no one to protect us,” Hasina said.

Without an identity card or relevant documents, Hasina could not leave Arakan legally. She fled with her children on a fishing boat late one night, enduring sea sickness and cramped conditions for 16 days before reaching Thai soil.

It was another week before she and her husband were reunited—the brokers held them in a jungle camp until her husband paid more money. During this time, their daily meals consisted of rice and a single small chili. Water was scarce.

Hasina joined a growing number of Rohingya who already live and work clandestinely in Thailand. As they are not recognized Burmese nationals, they cannot register as migrant workers under existing schemes.

The secretive nature of their lives means it is difficult to know how many Rohingya in Thailand are in a similar plight. Around 55,000 people, mainly Rohingya but also Bangladeshis, left Burma on boats in 2013 and some 17,000 people have already undertaken the journey between January to mid-May 2014, according to Chris Lewa, coordinator of Rohingya advocacy group Arakan Project, who has been monitoring Rohingya boat journeys.

Thailand is a pit stop for many of these journeys. Traffickers and smugglers would hold the Rohingya hostage in jungle camps in southern Thailand, sometimes for months, until the families pay more.

Raids of the camps by Thai law enforcement officials since 2013 have detained more than 2,000 Rohingya but many have since disappeared. An investigation by Reuters last year found Thai authorities were sometimes working with the smugglers and traffickers in an effort to push the Rohingya out of Thailand because immigration detention camps were becoming overwhelmed with asylum-seekers.

Fortify Right’s Smith said the UN should be doing more to help the Rohingya.

“A severe refugee crisis has been unfolding under the nose of UNHCR for years and we haven’t seen any marked improvements,” he said.

“At the very least, UNHCR should be ensuring there is no indefinite detention of Rohingya. Under international law, no country is justified in maintaining indefinite detention of anyone, let alone asylum seekers.”

For Hasina, her only regret was not being able to bring her eldest son, a 16-year-old, because the family could not afford it. Her husband is still 40,000 baht ($1,200) in debt, having paid brokers to help his family reach Thailand.

“Just today when we spoke to him he asked about joining us but his father needs to pay off all the debts for us first,” she said.

Hasina let her imagination run loose, perhaps for the first time in months.

“Maybe if things improve in Burma we could all go back,” she said.

Her husband, preparing a simple meal of goat and shrimp curries, shouted from the kitchen: “No, you will not.”