They witnessed their families being murdered and their homes burned to the ground in what the UN calls a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.
But hidden behind closed doors in the sprawling refugee camps, many Rohingya women and girls continue to be exploited and abused.
According to UN estimates, women and girls make up two-thirds of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
Al Jazeera’s 101 East went to find out how women are being trafficked, tricked and traded amid the chaos of Bangladesh’s crowded camps.
Fatima still remembers the day in August 2017, when soldiers from the Myanmar military came to her village – and suddenly everything changed.
“I used to hang out with my friends, putting on makeup, shopping for clothes and eating. We’d chat with friends and family, laugh and enjoy ourselves,” she says.
A few months on, she stands in her family’s hut in Kutupalong refugee camp on Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar. Her hands are decorated with henna, drawn in preparation for her wedding.
She has never met her future husband.
While child marriage is common in the Rohingya community, Fatima wanted to wait. But her father says he doesn’t have the money to keep her.
“They didn’t ask me and I didn’t say anything. But whatever decision they make, I have to follow. I can’t go against it. I can’t say ‘no.'”
Fatima is distraught as she is dressed for her wedding. Soon, she will be escorted from her home to her in-laws’ house for the ceremony. She will live with them for the rest of her life, taking care of her husband’s family.
“I feel very sad. How can I go to someone else’s house and live my life? I’m going to miss my family.”
Child marriage is common in the Rohingya community, and Fatima’s father agreed to marry his 15-year-old daughter off because he will have one less mouth to feed.
“When she’s married there will be less burden on me, because we need to buy her clothes and other things. It’s not necessary for a girl to be 18. I have to get her married – whether she is 15, 17 or 18. There’s no benefit in keeping girls,” he says.
And since the family fled their home in Myanmar and came to the crowded refugee camp in Bangladesh, he has also become concerned about their safety.
“The camp’s here are so crowded. As parents, we feel it’s much safer for our girls to get married quickly to avoid any kinds of incidents. I’m afraid of the boys. You never know what could happen. They might take my daughter away and that would be shameful for me.”
Some of the Rohingya girls end up in Cox’s Bazaar, a tourist town not far from the refugee camps which is notorious for its thriving sex industry.
‘Sharifa’ (which is not her real name) fled her village in Myanmar after she saw soldiers gang-rape and murder her two sisters. She says she also witnessed them slaughter her father and brother.
Traumatised, ‘Sharifa’ escaped to Bangladesh with her mother and remaining siblings. Before they reached the refugee camps, they were befriended by a Rohingya woman who promised to find ‘Sharifa’ a job as a cleaner.
Instead, the woman became her pimp.
“She told me that I was going to someone’s house to clean. I said, ‘Yes, I’ll go’. When I got there, there was a man and I was afraid of him.
“I felt so sad. I had so much pain in my heart. My head hurt and I was afraid that my family would find out.
The pimp pays ‘Sharifa’ $3 a customer and controls her every move. She feels she has no choice but to continue working to provide for her family.
“She told me that when someone calls I need to go where they want and do whatever they say. I just do what they tell me. We don’t have any money or anything else. My mother and brother are both sick,” she says.
“I think about how I can study again. How can I be a good person?… How long do I have to keep going to customers’ houses?”
Many Rohingya girls like ‘Sharifa’ are being forced or tricked into prostitution, and it seems that the recent influx of refugees from Myanmar has fuelled the sex trade in Bangladesh.
101 East meets a pimp who has been working in the sex trade for two years. He says most of his customers are Bangladeshi businessmen, tourists and locals.
“Our customers prefer Rohingya girls who have just arrived and also very young girls. They like beautiful and presentable girls.”
He explains how they trick the girls into a life of exploitation: “We target girls who only have a single parent, girls with only a father or mother. We also target poor girls who are good-looking … We treat them to tea and snacks and eventually we tell them that we can get them a job to support their family …
“They come because they don’t have another option.”
Johara Begum walked through dense forest for two weeks without food or water to escape attacks from the Myanmar military on her village.
When she arrived in Bangladesh’s overcrowded refugee camps, another Rohingya woman befriended her and offered to show her around the camp. Instead, Johara was kidnapped and held hostage while the woman arranged to sell her.
“They put me in another room. They blindfolded me and bound my mouth. I was wearing earrings and a ring from Myanmar, which my mother had given me. They wanted my jewellery and when I resisted they beat me,” she says.
Johara’s mother managed to rescue her before she was trafficked, but now she lives in constant fear that they will come back for her daughter.
“I live in terror now. Sometimes so much that I can’t speak. I never go out. I’m too scared to even sleep.”