The ‘impossible’ life of Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees

Forced out of Myanmar, the mostly Muslim Rohingya are struggling to find a place to call home

Rohingya refugees are helped ashore by Indonesians after weeks at sea
The first group of Rohingya refugees was found off Aceh in June 2020 [Antara Foto/Rahmad via Reuters]
The first group of Rohingya refugees was found off Aceh in June 2020 [Antara Foto/Rahmad via Reuters]

Aceh and Medan, Indonesia - Gura Amin spends 12 hours a day, six days a week packing boxes in a Malaysian factory.

The 22-year-old Rohingya refugee makes about 2,400 Malaysian ringgit ($510) a month, which he uses for his daily expenses and to pay off a 10,000 Malaysian ringgit ($2,123) debt to the people who brought him across the sea from Indonesia.

Four years ago, living in the sprawling and crowded refugee camps of Bangladesh, getting to Malaysia had been Amin’s dream.

He thought his life would improve if he could get to the majority-Muslim country that is already home to tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees.  “But I can’t find any good opportunities or improve my education or career. It was really my mistake [coming here],” he told Al Jazeera.

Gura Amin sitting in his room holding up a copy of a new English book 'English Text, Grade 9', He looks pleased. He is sitting on his bed. The walls are bare. There are pots and a rice cooker on the table behind him
Gura Amin, a Rohingya refugee, learned English with the help of humanitarian agencies and volunteers [Aisyah Llewellyn/Al Jazeera]

Amin's journey to Malaysia began on March 27, 2020, at the Unchiprang Camp when he boarded a small, wooden boat at a jetty known as Dock Six in the hope of finding a better life away from the camps of Cox’s Bazar where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had fled after a brutal Myanmar military crackdown in 2017.

“I felt so sad looking at the boat because it looked very small and I wanted to cancel the trip and go back to my home in the camp,” he said later. “But then I thought that many, many people had already travelled to Malaysia by this boat, so I would also be OK.”

As they ventured out into the sea, Amin recalls the vessel being tossed around in the strong winds. The refugees, numbering about 90, according to Amin, could see nothing in the dead of night and had no idea the direction in which they were headed. While Amin often asked the smugglers where they were, he was ignored. “I had no idea what was happening to me,” he said.

Rohingya Refugees Mark One Year Since The Crisis
A woman and her child in the Unchiprang camp in Cox's Bazar where Gura Amin lived until he boarded the boat he thought was taking him to Malaysia [File: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images]

Once they entered international waters, Amin and the other Rohingya were ordered onto a larger ship. As the vessels rolled together and apart, the refugees feared they would fall into the sea.

“The small boat was low in the water and the big one was much higher, so the boatmen had to catch people by their hands and pull them up,” Amin recalled of the desperate and dangerous scramble from one boat to the other.

It was “really terrible”, he said.

They remained on the larger boat for hours, as the traffickers waited for more refugees to arrive, saying they would only leave when there were some 950 people on board.

Turned away as Southeast Asia tightens border security

Gura Amin and dozens of other Rohingya spent weeks adrift at sea

Rphingya packed into a wooden boat off the coast of Langkawi in Malaysia, There is a tyre hanginhulled boat off the side of the blue
Malaysia detained or pushed back Rohingya who arrived during the COVID-19 pandemic [Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency via AFP]
Malaysia detained or pushed back Rohingya, who arrived during the COVID-19 pandemic [Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency via AFP]

Amin thinks it was about a month before they arrived in Malaysian waters.

It was the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Malaysia had locked down and sealed its borders, but the people smugglers were hoping that the virus would quickly die down and border control would relax, Amin said.

They waited. Bobbing aimlessly on the water as the weeks passed, food became an increasing source of torment for the refugees on board.

To begin with, they had had rice and small, stale cakes that they washed down with instant coffee made with bottled water, and the smugglers had also brought sacks of onions that they sometimes ate. But no one had planned for weeks of delay. The rations dwindled. “After two months, it was very difficult,” Amin said.

The refugees had set up a tarpaulin to protect them from the sun, and when it rained, they would try to collect the water that had accumulated there, funnelling it into the empty bottles. But it was never enough.

“Near the end, the people smugglers would feed us one handful of rice per day and half a glass of water. We were so hungry and thirsty all the time,” said Amin.

Gura Amin and M Ullah as they prepare to leave Aceh. There are large blue carriers with IOM written on them and a logo. On the wall beside them is a drawing of a helicopter
Gura Amin and Mohammad Ullah in their room in the temporary camp where they were housed in Aceh. The two became friends during their harrowing months at sea [Raymondo/Al Jazeera]

Conditions were so harsh that Amin estimates “maybe about 100 people” died.

He told Al Jazeera that an old man he had seen begging the smugglers for water died two hours after his request was denied. A young boy, perhaps two or three years old, died the same way, Amin said, after crying out for water for several hours.

The bodies of the dead were tipped over the side; stripped naked before they went into the sea. Like food and water, clothes were considered a precious commodity - the refugees had only been allowed to bring what they were wearing.

“We were crying so much on that ship,” Amin said. “We were like skeletons.”

Amin said that there were maybe six or seven people smugglers on board and they were armed with sticks and guns. “The sailors were infidels [non-Muslims],” Amin said. “Some had come from Myanmar and some from Bangladesh but they said to us that they had been at sea for many years doing that job [people smuggling]. Their journey smuggling people had lasted for a very long time, they said.”

We were crying so much on that ship

by Gura Amin, Rohingya refugee

According to Amin and Mohammed Ullah, another young Rohingya he met during the journey, the smugglers used their weapons to intimidate the refugees into begging for more money from their families back in Bangladesh and Myanmar.

“Sometimes they would beat us and tell us to call our parents to transfer more money to them. We paid 5,000 Malaysian ringgit [$1,211] and after a few months at sea on the big boat, the smugglers asked for 5,000 Malaysian ringgit more,” Amin said.

In early June 2020, the smugglers decided to make another attempt to get to Malaysia, hoping pandemic restrictions had been lifted.

But the situation had gotten worse.

“There were Malaysian helicopters circling overhead,” Amin recalled. “The smugglers said: ‘We will not take you to Malaysia. Go now, we don’t care.’”

Amin says it was at that point that the smugglers decided to split the group up, betting that a smaller number of people would have a better chance of making it ashore.

The refugees were put into four boats, each with one smuggler. Two drifted in the direction of the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi and two towards the coast of Aceh in Indonesia - one a larger, slower vessel, and the others smaller and faster.

On June 8, Malaysia’s coastguard announced it had detained 269 refugees off the coast of Langkawi after their boat’s engine failed. Fifty of the Rohingya, desperate to get onto dry land, jumped into the water and swam for the shore.

[Al Jazeera]

Four days later,  Amin and Ullah’s boat was pushed back by the Malaysian coastguard.

The two men say they then drifted in the waters between Malaysia and Indonesia, as their meagre supply of food and water finally ran out. They were unaware that one of the other boats, carrying almost 100 refugees, had arrived in the Indonesian province of Aceh on June 24. Having been at sea for so long, some could barely walk. All were desperately hungry and thirsty. Even now, no one knows what happened to the fourth boat.

Al Jazeera was not able to locate the smugglers to speak to them about Amin and Ullah’s experience at sea. The two refugees' accounts echo the experiences of others who have made the journey.

It was only in September that Amin's boat was finally spotted by local fishermen - not far from the coastal town of Lhokseumawe.

The Indonesian authorities allowed them to land and even gave the Rohingya some assistance.

They were taken to a complex of basic, concrete buildings, with communal shower and toilet facilities and the air of an army barracks, only a 10-minute drive from the coast.

It was by no means luxurious, but it was dry land and it was safe.

“I was extremely glad to have landed in Aceh,” Amin recalled of his arrival. “As were the others who were in the same boat.”

Rohingya refugees sitting beneath a shelter after arriving in Aceh in Sept 2020. They look tired and thin. They are barefoot
The Rohingya were thin and exhausted by the time they were brought ashore in Aceh in September [Rahmat Mirza/AFP]

Reaching dry land

Low on food, water and hope, Gura Amin and his fellow Rohingya came ashore - not in Malaysia, but Indonesia.

The Rohingya refugees praying at the temporary camp in Aceh. They are beneath a shelter. The newly built toilets are in the background
Low on food, water and hope, Gura Amin and his fellow Rohingya came ashore - not in Malaysia, but in Indonesia
Low on food, water and hope, Gura Amin and his fellow Rohingya came ashore not in Malaysia, but in Indonesia

By April 2021, the Rohingya were on the move again - this time to Medan, a city of 2.4 million people, a six-hour bus journey south of Lhokseumawe.

The refugees were given rooms - once rented by the hour - in a hotel in a bustling part of the city that was mainly home to the Christian Indigenous Batak people. The air was filled with the pungent smell of pork and dog meat cooking over hot coals in the restaurants along the street outside, which was also dotted with bars offering a kind of fermented local moonshine known as tuak. The food and drink are delicacies enjoyed by North Sumatra’s Batak, an Indigenous people who are predominantly Christian.

It was a far cry from the quiet and peaceful camp in Aceh, the most conservative part of mostly-Muslim Indonesia, and the only province in the country governed by Islamic law.

Amin did his best to make his room feel like home. Like all the other adults, he was given a monthly allowance of 1.25 million Indonesian rupiah ($76) and was free to leave the hotel as long as he was back by sunset.

The six Rohingya men standing outside the entrance to the Hotel Pelangi. Three of them are wearing sarongs with their t-shirts and the rest trousers. They look quite pensive excpet for Gura Amin who is smiling
Gura Amin, second left, with some of the other Rohingya who were housed at the Pelangi Hotel in Medan in the months after their rescue [Aisyah Llewellyn/Al Jazeera]

But the dream of Malaysia that first propelled Amin onto a boat in the Bay of Bengal had not gone away.

In March 2022, he paid a smuggler to take him there.

Excited about the future, and what he thought would be a chance to earn proper money, he sent Al Jazeera a video he recorded on his phone as he hid in the bushes with other Rohingya while they waited for night to fall and the boat that would take them across the Strait of Malacca to Malaysia.

Amin was almost euphoric when he finally stepped foot in the country, snapping and sharing pictures of the road signs he passed on the way to his new life in the west coast city of Shah Alam.

But despite the country being home to nearly 190,000 refugees, some 58 percent of them Rohingya, things have not worked out as Amin expected.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention and the government has been taking a tougher line on undocumented people, mounting frequent raids. Thousands are being held in immigration detention centres - described earlier this year as "violent and squalid" by Human Rights Watch (HRW) - and the UNHCR has not been allowed to visit the depots to secure the release of refugees since 2019.

While Amin managed to find a job - manning a clothing stand in a dingy mall - almost immediately he found it was the target of regular raids. He said he had to pay a police officer 100 Malaysian ringgit ($21) to avoid arrest. Other refugees have made similar allegations. The Malaysian police have denied such practices.

He also found that he would need to wait to receive the UNHCR card that would provide him with some level of protection so he decided he needed a less conspicuous job.

That was how he ended up at the factory.

The Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown is now the subject of a genocide investigation at the International Court of Justice, but with the country back under the rule of the generals, there appears to be little chance of justice or an end to the trauma of the Rohingya anytime soon.

“Everywhere is the same,” Amin replied when asked whether he had preferred the camp in Aceh, the hotel in Medan, or his new life in Malaysia. “Life is impossible.”

Source: Al Jazeera