SITTWE, Arakan State — The boy was shoved onto the wooden vessel with hundreds of other Rohingya Muslims. For days, the 14-year-old sat with his knees bent into his chest, pressed up against sweaty bodies in the cabin’s rancid heat.
Women cradled coughing babies. The crew paced back and forth with belts and iron rods, striking anyone who dared to speak, stand up or even those who vomited from the nauseating stench and rolling waves.
Rohingya have been fleeing persecution in predominantly Buddhist Burma for years, but that was not the central reason Mohammad Tayub ended up on the ship anchored off the coast of western Arakan State two weeks ago.
He said he was simply tricked by brokers, now capitalizing on poverty and a growing sense of desperation.
Two men approached him while he was tending cattle, he said, offering him a job in Malaysia and saying that if he wanted to help earn money for his family, this was his best chance.
They took him to the shore on the back of their motorbike, offering assurances he wouldn’t have to pay for the boat ride. He hoped at least to go home, pack a bag and say goodbye, but by that time, it was already too late.
“I’m never going to see my mother again,” he thought when inside the ship, his body pressed up tightly against strangers on all sides. “I wanted to cry, but I knew I’d be beaten again if I did.”
Tayub had no way of knowing there is little chance of an exit for thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded in the sea since a crackdown on human trafficking networks in Thailand earlier this month left the region grappling with a monumental humanitarian crisis. They are growing weaker each day as the navies of three Southeast Asian nations have pushed crowded rickety boats out of their respective waters, each nation fearing that any sign of acceptance could trigger a mass exodus that would swamp its shores.
Survivors say dozens have died and an increasingly alarmed United Nations has warned that the boats could turn into “floating coffins.”
But that has not stopped brokers like the ones who approached Tayub in Burma. All are still eager to earn the US$100 they receive from the ship’s captain for each body delivered regardless of what happens after they leave, according to Maung Maung, a community leader who has researched trafficking in camps in and around Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State.
The captains know they can earn more money — thousands of dollars per person from family members — once they leave the country’s terrestrial waters.
For those trapped inside the vessels until the crew is given the go-ahead to leave, the shore is tantalizingly close, a few hours away by boat.
“I wanted to jump in the water and swim back home,” Tayub said, “but the crew were all armed. I knew they’d shoot me.”
The government claims Burma’s 1.3 million Rohingya are illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though many of their families arrived generations ago. Denied citizenship, they are effectively stateless and have faced violence and state-sponsored discrimination for decades.
After the country of 50 million started moving from dictatorship to democracy in 2011, newfound freedoms of expression lifted the lid off deep-seated hatred of the dark-skinned religious minority, making them even more vulnerable. Up to 280 Rohingya have been killed since mid-2012, and some 140,000 were chased from their homes by machete-wielding extremist Buddhist mobs. They now live under apartheid-like conditions in camps where they can’t work, get an adequate education or receive medical care.
They have been told there’s little chance they will be allowed to vote in upcoming general elections and that those who cannot prove their families have been in the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1948 could face deportation or indefinite detention in camps.
As result, more than 100,000 Rohingya and neighboring Bangladeshis have fled by boat in the last three years, the biggest exodus of boat people in the region since the Vietnam War, says Chris Lewa of the non-profit advocacy group Arakan Project.
Now it is not just religious and ethnic persecution but abject poverty, desperation and greed within their own communities that have torn the social fabric and driven Rohingya to leave.
Though police, navy and other government officials profit, the brokers themselves are almost all Rohingya.
The Associated Press interviewed nine families whose children have been taken by traffickers. It also interviewed six young victims, several community leaders and a smuggler in Sittwe.
Maung Maung, one of the community leaders, rattled off names of more than a dozen men and women working full time to fill ships with human cargo. Residents were quick to confirm them, saying it’s no longer a secret. The giant wooden vessel that carried Tayub was among five migrant ships bobbing last week in the Bay of Bengal that separates Burma and Bangladesh.
The brokers promise men jobs and offer pretty young girls the prospect of marriage if they agree to board the ships. It may cost them nothing to board, but the migrants are unaware that they will be held hostage in jungle camps or at sea until their poor families somehow come up with enough money to pay their ransom. Activists also say some women end up being sold into prostitution.
Until recently, the first stop for boats leaving the Bay of Bengal was Thailand, long considered a regional trafficking hub. Men, women and children were often held until brokers could collect up to $2,000 from relatives.
Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia, because the Muslim country faces a shortage of unskilled workers. Those who couldn’t come up with the money were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die. At suspected migrant camps in the mountains of southern Thailand, authorities have unearthed dozens of bodies from shallow graves since May 1. They have also arrested dozens of people, including police, politicians and a suspected trafficking kingpin.
The crackdown, however, had the unintended consequence of spooking agents and brokers, who started holding the migrants offshore in overloaded boats. Fearing arrest, captains abandoned vessels, leaving thousands of men, women and children to fend for themselves on the open ocean.
Off the Burma coast, Tayub and everyone else on the wooden boat seemed destined to meet the even more uncertain fate once the vessel left, though it was unclear to those on board what they were waiting for.
As the number of passengers climbed to about 300, they were convinced the ship would soon set sail and their families would never know what had happened.
Some were able to leave, but only if they could somehow pay the brokers anywhere from $100 to $300 to disembark.
On Tayub’s 12th night on board, he heard a boat pull up and loud voices. He was shocked to hear someone call, “Come out people from the Sittwe area!” He rushed to the deck with 13 other boys and girls, tripping between the bodies and legs of the other tightly packed passengers.
The kids didn’t know it then, but their parents had learned what had happened and paid a local community leader to rescue them. They argued, negotiated, and eventually, after handing over hundreds of dollars, the ship’s broker let them disembark. When they arrived at shore hours later, eyes red from crying and their stomachs concave after days of eating nothing but a few handfuls of rice and slices of potato, they rushed to their parents’ arms.
Some said they knew when their children disappeared that there was only one place they could be: the ships. Every village and camp in the area had stories about missing children or relatives and friends.
“When we left from the ship, the rest of the people were crying and shouting,” Tayub said. “They wanted to go home, too.” Instead, he said, the crew beat them, and shot their guns in the air to shut them up.