In November 2007, Rohingya refugee Ali Ashraf paid dubious agents in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar town for a place in a big boat that was to take him to Malaysia via Thailand for a "good job" and a "secure future".
Three weeks later, after a perilous journey across the choppy waters of the Bay of Bengal, Ashraf's boat was intercepted by the Thai navy. The tough Rohingya was dragged out to a beach at night, beaten up and questioned by uniformed men and then dumped back into the boat two days later with other Rohingya.
The Thais had removed the boat's engine before it was towed to the high sea by a big naval ship and then left to drift. "There was no food or water left in the ship, we were left to die on the sea," Ashraf said two weeks later after he was rescued by Indian coast guards when his boat drifted towards India's Andaman islands.
By then, Ashraf was on the verge of death, totally dehydrated and emaciated. But after a month in an Indian hospital at Andaman's Port Blair town, he had recovered and was lucky to survive, unlike most of his friends on that perilous boat journey.
Rohingya: the world's most forgotten people
"Some jumped off the boat in desperation when they saw the coastline. Either they were drowned or eaten up by sharks. Others drank sea water to quench thirst and died of disease. I survived by keeping my lips moist with sea water but did not drink it. Allah was merciful," Ashraf recounted his ordeal at Port Blair.
In the summer of 2008, he was taken back by Bangladesh after India submitted a list of Rohingya rescued off the Andamans, and Dhaka agreed to take only those of them who had Bangladeshi citizenship or a UNHCR refugee certificate. Thankfully, Ashraf's details matched the records at one of the Rohingya refugee camp run by the UNHCR near Cox's Bazar. A month later, Ashraf was reunited with his wife and children.
But efforts to trace down Ashraf during a visit to Bangladesh last year were unsuccessful. People in Cox's Bazar said Ashraf and his whole family were among the thousands of Rohingya who had been repatriated to Myanmar by the Bangladesh government, after the UNHCR cut down on support to run the refugee camps that were first set up when tens of thousands of Rohingya fled into Bangladesh in the late 1970s. More and more camps were added to shelter the continuous flood of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar (then Burma), but they are now being steadily closed down.
Bangladesh's Awami League-led coalition government wants to send back all the Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. "They are Myanmar citizens and we have sheltered them long enough. Now they must go back and settle down in Myanmar," Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said recently, after a round of talks with a Myanmar delegation.
Unwanted in Bangladesh
The Awami League is a secular party wedded to Bengali linguistic nationalism, and their leaders see the Rohingya as religious bigots who support their rivals in Bangladesh's Islamic party, the Jamait-e-Islami. Bangladesh intelligence officials say the Jamait-e-Islami support the Rohingya insurgent groups that have fought Myanmar forces and routed funds from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to them through a network of Islamic NGOs. The Rohingya groups deny the charge but admit they have sympathisers across the Islamic world.
"Security agencies in India began to look at any Muslim migrant as a potential trouble-maker, Rohingyas included."
- Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhury
Unwanted now in an over-populated Bangladesh, the Rohingya are also not wanted in their own country, Myanmar. Even President Thein Sein has said on record that the Rohingyas are migrants from the Chittagong region of neighbouring Bangladesh and not indigenous to Myanmar, so they should be taken away to some other place.
The president is supported by many of his countrymen in his perceptions that the Rohingya are "dangerous trouble-makers" and "Islamic Jihadis". In late July, dozens of Burmese in Yangon chanted slogans in front of a UN office in Yangon: "Go back Rohingya, get out of Myanmar, we support our president". They blamed the Rohingya for the recent riots in Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state, though UNHCR officials say the Rohingya have suffered much more than the native Rakhines.
More than 60 of the nearly 80 killed in the riots in Rakhine state this summer are Rohingya. The riots started after Rohingya men were accused of raping a Rakhine woman, and spread when angry Rakhines went on a killing spree. After the army was called out to control the riots and a state of emergency was declared in Rakhine state, more than 1,200 Rohingya are said to have gone missing, according to Tun Khine, president of the Burma Rohingya Organisation in UK (BROUK). And nearly 100,000 of them have been displaced from their homes and herded into makeshift camps. So it is entirely possible that the likes of Ashraf, after spending two decades in refugee camps in Bangladesh, would have been displaced again back home after returning.
The Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingya have a long tradition of intense hostility that goes back to the steady flow of Muslim immigrants from Bengal's Chittagong region into Arakan province, migration that was encouraged by the British. Thousands of Rakhines and Rohingya died in riots in Arakan in 1942 during the Second World War. The Japanese also massacred large number of Rohingya because they supported the British.
In 1947, some Rohingya leaders formed the Mujahid Party and raised the demand for a separate Muslim Autonomous Region in northern Arakan. That upset the Rakhines and the Burmese military junta alike, and General Ne Win unleashed "Operation King Dragon" in the Rohingya-dominated areas of Arakan in 1978. The mass torture and extra-judicial killings, gang rapes and demolition of mosques forced nearly one-third of the Rohingya population to flee to Bangladesh. From there, many of them moved into India enroute to Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle east.
|Ashraf was rescued by the Indian coast guard when his boat drifted towards the Andaman Islands [Sanjib Roy/Al Jazeera]
Now, India has also send out an alert to the states in the country's northeast to step up vigil against illegal Rohingya migration, after more than 1,400 Rohingyas have been nabbed in the last two years on the borders trying to get into Indian territory.
Chris Lewa, who has researched the Rohingya extensively, says thousands of them have been migrating to Pakistan through India from the refugee camps in Bangladesh. During the course of her research, she found a lot of Rohingya women in the red light districts of Karachi and many Rohingya men in the port city's thriving fishing industry.
"But the journey through India has become more and more difficult since Islamic terrorist activities began to rise and security agencies in India began to look at any Muslim migrant as a potential trouble-maker, Rohingya included," says Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhury, who has researched migration patterns on India's eastern frontiers.
After the prospects of migrating to Pakistan and the Middle East began to dry up, Rohingya turned towards Malaysia, travelling there through Thailand. Many could slip in and settle down in Malaysia with the help of clerics and Islamic networks. Some even reached Australia. But as the Thais became more vigilant and tried to deter the Rohingya with harsh punishment like dragging their boats back to high seas without engines, the hapless minority, now numbering between 800,000 to a million in Myanmar, has been rendered short of options to find a safe future.