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50 Days on a Boat: What it Takes to Flee Burma

By Tom Andrews
December 22, 2014

After his second arrest, Rafique Ahmad worried that the next time the police came for him at his home in Nyaung Chaung Village in Rakhine State Burma, he would be sent to prison. His crime? Talking too much.

Rafique worked with development NGOs serving the desperate Rohingya community in Rakhine State here in Burma. He later worked with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees helping the UN agency link to the community. When his village was wracked with violence last year, he knew that he would be targeted by police so he slipped from his village and made his way to Malaysia where he would try to find the means to bring his wife and four children.

The military dominated government of Burma does not want you to know about Rafique and the horror that is life as a Rohingya in Burma. That is precisely why he is so dangerous - he talks. And, it is precisely why I am here in Southeast Asia - to listen. I write this from Burma having arrived from Malaysia where I travelled to meet Rohingya families who barely escaped from their villages in Burma's western Rakhine State.

Rafique's Journey

I met Rafique and his family in Kuala Lumpur a few days ago. His wife and three of his children had arrived in Malaysia the day before after an arduous journey that included fifty days on a boat carrying 500 other desperate refugees and an another several days in a Thai jungle camp where they were held by their traffickers. His wife described the hell that they went through to get there. The boat was overcrowded and filthy. There was little food and water.

The traffickers set off with a week's worth of food and water for a fifty day journey. There were one hundred women and fifty other children on board. They clung to the hope that they would survive the journey and their great sense of relief at being free of the hell that was life in Rakhine.

The good news is that Rafique was, incredibly, able to raise the $4,000 he needed to buy the release of his wife and three of his children from the traffickers and get them to Malaysia from the Thai jungle camp where they were being held.

The bad news is that he was unable to raise what he needed to buy the release of his eldest son, 17 year old Faruk. Faruk remains captive in the Thai camp while his father works desperately to raise the $2,000 additional dollars he needs for his son's freedom.

Rafique and his family are part of an extraordinary and escalating boat exodus of equally desperate Rohingya from Rakhine State in Burma. More than 100,000 escaped on boats in the last year. I was told that the rate has jumped 50% from the year before and that there is every indication that the number of Rohingya who are willing to risk it all rather than remain in Burma will continue to spike upward.

Rafiique explained that the Rohingya refugees are held in the Thai jungle camps until they are paid the equivalent of $2,000 dollars - an unthinkable amount of money for almost every one of their families. If their families fail to deliver the cash for their release, they are sold to other traffickers. Some end up on fishing boats. Some on rubber plantations. Others are sold into the sex trade.

Burma's Third Rail: The Rohingya

There is little to no pressure within Burma to stop this horror. I was told that standing up for the Rohingya was a bad move for a politician or political party to make - including Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi - who remains largely silent.

"Think of it as a third rail in Burmese politics", I was told by a political operative, "touch it and you die - there is no constituency here for the Rohingya. Only trouble for those who stand up or speak out on their behalf."

So there is no restraint on those who would prefer every one of the 1.3 million Rohingya to be driven into the sea. No restraint on the government who leveled a death sentence for untold numbers of Rohingya earlier this year when it announced that the only source of health care for most Rohingya, Doctors Without Borders, would no longer be allowed to treat them.

And there is more bad news: As Burma's 2015 elections draw closer, political leaders and parties are seeking to advance even tougher and more repressive measures into law.

In January, Burma's parliament will take up legislation that would restrict religious conversions, limit the number of children people can have in certain regions, and require Buddhist women to seek government permission to marry a non-Buddhist man.

Seeking Hope

Rafique - and every other Rohingya I have met with - were thrilled when President Obama raised the plight of the Rohingya during his visit this fall. "We are desperate", I was told, "and without friends." "You don't know how much your support means to all of us." For many, it provided what has long been missing for the Rohingya here - hope.

It is easy to think of this massive exodus from Burma, if we do at all, in abstract terms. But, I will forever think about Rafique and his family - including his son who remains locked in a Thai based camp. And, why it is so important for us to redouble our efforts to help stop the living hell that they face not because of anything that they have done, but because of their ethnicity, the color of their skin and the God who they pray to.

Tom Andrews is president of United to End Genocide.

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