RATTAPHUM, Thailand — The strapping 23-year-old Rohingya Muslim was matter of fact as he described being forced onto a boat in Burma for a tortuous two-month-long journey, beaten and kicked by traffickers as he watched scores die of starvation and thirst along the way.
He said he was abandoned in May in a jungle camp in Thailand’s deep south near the Malaysian border, discovered and rescued a few hours later by Thai police and taken to a shelter tucked away amid tropical vegetation and rubber plantations.
But his calm demeanor cracked when he spoke about his wife and one-year-old daughter.
On many evenings in this compound of cement buildings that has become home to 66 male Rohingya trafficking victims from Burma and 19 from Bangladesh, the man cried, homesick.
Late last month, the shelter staff took pity on him, granting him a five-minute phone call to his home in Sittwe in western Burma’s Arakan State.
“I could hear my baby crying,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation under the wary gaze of the shelter director, who monitored the interview he had reluctantly permitted with the condition that the man’s identity was protected.
“I want to go home. I miss them,” the Rohingya man added, falling silent and bending over as he crumpled in sadness.
Swept up by trafficking rings taking advantage of the tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence and apartheid-like conditions in Burma, this man may never go back home.
The predominantly Buddhist country does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens and says any trafficking victims must pass nationality verification before being allowed back to Burma.
He is now among about 600 Rohingya stranded in limbo in Thai shelters and immigration detention centres, some suffering depression and other mental illnesses after their ordeals, with little access to mental health care.
Escape by Boat
Communal violence and clashes in 2012 in Arakan State forced 140,000 Rohingya from their homes into squalid camps. Burma maintains the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and denies them citizenship, healthcare, education and other basic rights.
Since then, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled, paying smugglers to take them in rickety boats in the hope of reaching Malaysia. Some said they were abducted by traffickers and forced onto boats. Migrants from Bangladesh, including some Rohingya, were also among the boat people.
Criminal gangs orchestrating the exodus diverted some migrants to secret camps near the Thai-Malaysia border, holding them for ransom and killing and torturing those whose families could not pay up. Others died of disease and neglect.
After the discovery in May of dozens of graves on the Thai-Malaysia border, smugglers abandoned thousands of migrants at sea to avoid being caught in the widening net of Thai and Malaysian investigators.
The Rohingya rescued from trafficking camps are now stuck in shelters—identified as “people of concern” by the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) and granted temporary protection in Thailand.
They are separated from their families and face an uncertain future.
“When you combine those emotions with the memories of the physical trauma being on a boat for several weeks or having been confined in brutal smugglers camps, then the trauma is compounded,” said Jeff Labovitz, head of the International Organization for Migration mission in Thailand.
“In some cases the asylum seekers and migrants endured starvation, beatings, extortion, and rape.”
UNHCR says the common mental health issues among Rohingya refugees in Malaysia are “mild to moderate levels of stress, anxiety and depression”, due to factors including trauma they faced at home as well as the daily stress of living in a country where they cannot legally work or go to school.
“Some refugees, especially new arrivals, who had been held in traffickers’ camps before arriving in Malaysia, have been known to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders (including flashbacks and nightmares),” said UNHCR in Malaysia.
Phone Home as Therapy
In the Thai shelter, a phone call with loved ones has proven one of the best therapies for those who have been through traumatic experiences and face an uncertain future, shelter staff and aid workers say.
The International Committee for the Red Cross, through its “restoring family links” programme, provided 1,411 short phone calls last year to the family members of Bangladeshi and Burmese migrants held in immigration detention centres in Thailand.
Sometimes even a call is no guarantee that trafficking victims will get in contact with families, however, as some are from remote areas of Burma that lack phone communications.
“The most difficult thing for me is that I have not talked to my parents. I don’t know how they are doing,” said a 15-year-old boy who has been living in the Rattaphum shelter since the start of the year. He was also handpicked by the shelter director to speak to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“When I first arrived here, I had the chance to make a call to a phone in the area near my home, and I told them to please pass the message to my family that I am alive and well.”
In Thailand, a shortage of translators is a big obstacle to providing adequate psycho-social support for the Rohingya, shelter staff and aid workers say.
“When there is no translator, there is no longer the ability to clearly express needs, concerns, fears or traumas which increases the sense of vulnerability,” Labovitz said.
In the past, people posing as well-meaning Rohingya translators were linked to the criminal gangs, luring the shelter victims back into trafficking rings.
UNHCR provides interpreters for counseling and interviews, helping Thai authorities to communicate with the Rohingya, but does not have the resources to provide interpreters on a more regular basis, said Vivian Tan, UNHCR’s regional spokeswoman.
Save the Children has organised training in psychological “first aid” for carers in the shelters, as well as counseling and educational and play materials for children.
The Rattaphum shelter, located a 20-minute drive northwest of the city of Hat Yai, and about 20 km from the Gulf of Thailand coast, tries to organise outings for its residents, but these can be dangerous. Many of the victims are witnesses in court cases against dozens of arrested traffickers, including police and military.
“I take them to relax outside, take them to the seaside, but our cars are few and so are our staff,” said Athit Rakthong, the shelter director who only permitted a drive-by glimpse of the shelter grounds, where young trafficking victims chatted in groups and waved with a smile to their passing visitors.
“Most important is their safety because these cases involve people in uniform and influential people in this region. The area around here is all theirs.”
About 100 of the most vulnerable Rohingya have been resettled in the United States since 2013, according to UNHCR. Six men from the Rattaphum shelter have gone to the United States, including two who flew last month to Chicago.
This gives those who remain behind renewed hope.
Speaking to the man who cried for his wife and infant daughter, Satit, the social worker, said a new life in the United States would be better than statelessness back home.
“The best way we can help him is to connect him with UNHCR so that he can go to America,” Satit said. “He would have a chance at citizenship, then he will be able to bring his family to be with him. This is much better than going home.”