Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Senwara Begum travelled for two weeks by road and boat, over mountains and along rivers, guided only by a trafficker she feared, before she reached Malaysia to marry a man she had never met.
The journey was a blur of borders and landscapes unknown to her and it started in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps, where she was born 23 years earlier and where there is increasing concern about the number of young women and girls being smuggled across borders to marry Rohingya men abroad.
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The Kutupalong settlement in Cox’s Bazar, from where the women are plucked, grew into the world’s largest refugee site in 2017, after a Myanmar military operation described as “genocidal” by the UN targeted the majority-Muslim minority.
The overcrowded camp lacks security for women, who live in shelters composed of simple plastic sheeting on bamboo frames; there is little privacy.
According to Rohingya activists and rights groups, dozens of women are now regularly arriving in Malaysia to marry Rohingya men, reviving a form of transnational human trafficking that once moved thousands of Rohingya a year.
“We travelled by land, occasionally changing cars. We started in the camp and went up to the Indian border, then we headed to Malaysia. There were three of us: another woman and a man – the trafficker,” Begum told Al Jazeera. “I didn’t know the trafficker, so I was scared of being harassed by them. I’ve heard stories before about traffickers raping women, sexually harassing them and beating people, so I was scared.”
The marriages and travel are often arranged by Rohingya men, previously smuggled into Malaysia themselves but usually unable to marry local women.
Without documentation, they are unable to travel back to Myanmar or the refugee camps in Bangladesh to get married, so send proposals through friends and relatives and make arrangements for marriages that do not involve much consent from the girls.
Some of the Rohingya child brides my colleagues and I have spoken with are in slavery-like conditions ... A Rohingya girl told me she did not want to marry young but had no other choice.
Several Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh described similar journeys taken by relatives and in-laws in the past year that involved road trips that could take months and passed through Myanmar’s mountainous north.
Some of the trafficked women were among the remaining Rohingya families in Myanmar and had to enter Bangladesh, from where the traffickers operate, only to re-enter Myanmar at another point, one less militarised than their native Rakhine State.
Fortify Rights recently urged Malaysia to address child marriage, drawing on evidence from 11 interviews with child brides or their relatives in Bangladesh and Malaysia.
“One recent route documented by Fortify Rights is a complicated land route from Myanmar to Bangladesh, India, and then into Chin State in Myanmar and through the cities of Mandalay and Yangon, eventually crossing the Myanmar-Thailand border and later into Malaysia,” said John Quinley, a researcher with Fortify Rights.
“Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar have few options. They cannot work and have no formal access to education. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh fear forced repatriation or relocation to the island. All these push factors could lead to a real uptick in Rohingya families – including girls – moving to Malaysia, some for child marriage,” said Quinley.
Until 2015, a network of human traffickers transported Rohingya to the jungles of southern Thailand, where the refugees were held for ransom before they could be smuggled into Malaysia, where many believed they could find more freedom to work and live than in Bangladesh or Myanmar.
That vast network has been dormant since Thailand uncovered 139 mass graves at some of the trafficking camps along the border with Malaysia.
Since the 2017 influx into Bangladesh, attempts by traffickers there to smuggle Rohingya by boat have been stopped by the Bangladeshi coastguard.
In the past year, however, there has been increased movement of Rohingya, mostly through long land routes from Bangladesh.
A Rohingya activist in Thailand, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera it is impossible to know exactly how many Rohingya are entering Malaysia, but that there is now a constant flow of people.
The activist showed this reporter photos of young women and girls who were arrested by Thai authorities in February, saying that they were caught in a safe house after neighbours reported them.
Al Jazeera will not publish these images, in order to protect the refugees’ identities.
Hamida, 30, lives in the Bangladeshi refugee camps near Myanmar.
She said her Malaysia-based son arranged a marriage that brought a 15-year-old girl from Myanmar to Bangladesh, where the girl stayed with the family before travelling.
“She was scared about the journey but what could we do about it? It had all already been arranged,” said Hamida.
“From Bangladesh, they went to the Indian border and had to walk for many days. Then, they got to Thailand and took buses and cars until they got to Malaysia,” she said. “It took nearly three months and the girl became so skinny from the journey.”
Hamida’s son had been in Malaysia for several years when he organised the marriage through friends.
Begum’s marriage was arranged through her brother Zakir Hossain, 29. He was already living in Malaysia and now shares a home with his 17-year-old wife – who he also brought to the Southeast Asian country from a refugee camp in Bangladesh, as well as Begum and her husband, in a Kuala Lumpur suburb.
He said Rohingya men take these measures to get married because they have no other options in Malaysia, where most work undocumented as labourers or in factories.
“We’re scared about the traffickers but we can only leave it with God. We don’t want to hire traffickers but we have no options,” he said.
Chekufa, who has organised hundreds of Rohingya women across the camps into a network of volunteers, blamed economic challenges for the rise in trafficking and child brides.
“Many child marriages are happening because the monthly rations are not enough and there is no source of income,” she said.
Concern over food rations was also reflected in a monthly report on the challenges faced by refugees produced in March by the NGOs Translators without Borders, Internews and BBC Media Action.
Refugees complained about smaller rations, saying they were often contaminated with rocks and other materials.
Chekufa said these worries have seen some families marry their female relatives off because it meant one less mouth to feed.
“We have to talk more to the parents to stop these early marriages. Sometimes, we have to promise them: ‘We will try to support you with our own contribution, but please don’t marry her before her time’.”
Meanwhile, a combined lack of opportunity and security keeps many teenage girls locked inside their homes, with families saying they fear the attention women attract in the crowded camps.
When the person came to us, my only thought was that I would follow what my parents tell me to do.
Khaleda, 40, said her family received a proposal from a Rohingya man in Malaysia in 2018 to marry her 14-year-old daughter, but have not gone ahead with it because they cannot raise enough money.
Though these arranged marriages forgo the traditional dowry paid by the families of brides to men, in many cases they still pay half of the trafficking costs.
Khaleda says she would prefer to have her daughter married locally but would have to pay an expensive dowry.
The camps offer almost no education, so her daughter sits inside all day, where Khaleda believes it is safest for her.
In their dark shelter, the girl says little about the matter. Eventually, shyly, she admits she would prefer to stay with her parents.
“When the person came to us, my only thought was that I would follow what my parents tell me to do,” she said.
Begum said she was aware of the risks but also feared a marriage in Bangladesh.
“In the camp, lives are difficult. Women don’t have peaceful marriages. Men get married a few times and the women are not protected,” she said, adding that several women have been abandoned by husbands who re-marry while others suffer domestic abuse.
She said the idea of living in Malaysia at least offered her the chance to escape the crowded camp she was born into, but she was still concerned.
“I was worried because I didn’t what kind of man my husband would be. I was born in Bangladesh and he was born in Burma, so there could’ve been cultural differences. I didn’t know whether he would be good or bad,” she said.
Fortify Rights have documented cases of girls who have been abused by their husbands in Malaysia. Their research, conducted with the Rohingya Women’s Development Network run by Rohingya refugee Sharifah Hossain, said many women were denied freedom to move, work or attend school.
“Some of the Rohingya child brides my colleagues and I at Fortify Rights have spoken with are in slavery-like conditions and in situations of domestic servitude,” said Quinley. “A Rohingya girl told me she did not want to marry young but had no other choice.”
Begum, who is six months pregnant, said accessing medical treatment can be difficult because they are not registered by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention.
She has spent much of the past few months sat inside her home, scared to leave after being detained by immigration police who she says later released her after her husband raised money to pay them off.
“Here, you are not safe,” she said. “I miss my mother a lot.”