What It's Like to be a Rohingya Refugee for 23 Years
January 31, 2015
The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar are one of the most persecuted ethnic groups in the world. Mojib is a 29-year-old Rohingya refugee who lived in camps in Bangladesh for 22 years and came to Australia by boat in 2012. He is now living on a temporary protection visa in Brisbane. He sat down with VICE to share his story.
The Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for centuries. There were four million of us but lots of people have left. Before the coup in 1962—which was the beginning of Military rule—we enjoyed lots of citizenship rights. But in 1978 the government launched the Nagamin Dragon Operation—a campaign of mass arrests, torture, and rape. Many people fled to Bangladesh.
In 1982 the government cancelled the citizenship of all Rohingya people. I was born in Myanmar in 1984. In 1990, the government held its first democratic election since 1960. Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won 392 of the 492 seats. The government refused to recognize the results and launched another wave of persecution against the Rohingya people, many of whom were Aung San Suu Kyi supporters.
My father had been arrested but was let free after paying a large bribe. Later, he was told to appear at another government office. His friends told him not to go because many other people had gone and not come back. My two elder brothers who were in high school were kidnapped and taken into forced labor. The military raided my home, took our livestock and crops, and beat me and my mother. I still have the scar on my forehead. I was six years old.
So our family decided to flee across the border to Bangladesh with just the clothes and food we could carry. My married sisters stayed behind. I spent the next 22 years in refugee camps with no water, no security, and no electricity. We lived in small huts made out of tarps and bamboo—it was either very hot or very cold.
Living like that is a life of limbo. People have no hope. They are in darkness; there is no access to proper education, there is no future, there is no opportunity. We were still very grateful to the Bangladeshi government because they gave us shelter. We were an extra burden on a poor country, but the local authorities running the camps made life even more difficult.
We couldn't go out of the camps. Sometimes refugees get arrested—without any charges—and have to pay bribes. The camp authorities insult and abuse the women and girls. There is no security or stability. In 1997 my two sisters and sister-in-law, with her two babies, were taken by force back into Myanmar by the Bangladesh government. It was a forced repatriation of refugee people and many families were split up.
Around this time I ran into trouble with authorities when one of them stole my phone. When I asked for it back, false allegations were made against me and I was asked to pay a bribe and confess to these allegations. I was told if I didn't, my whole family could be kicked out of the camp or sent to jail. My family and I decided if I stayed and paid the bribe the harassment would continue, so I decided to leave Bangladesh for Australia.
In 2012, I fled the camp and met a man in a nearby town. He arranged to send me by boat to Malaysia. I was in Malaysia for one month until I found someone to arrange for me to get to Indonesia. From there, I met another man who arranged for me to come to Australia. The whole journey took six months.
I would describe the journey from Indonesia to Australia as being between life and death. The boat was too small for the waves and many times we thought we would drown. By day four the boat was filling with water. There were 43 of us on the boat—some Bangladeshi, some Iranians, and some fellow Rohingyas. After five days we were intercepted and taken on board a Navy vessel.
The Navy personnel treated us so well. After what I had experienced in Bangladesh, it was beyond my imagination. The Navy took us to Christmas Island. I spent a month there and then was transferred to Darwin Detention Center, then to Scherger Detention Center in North Queensland for nearly two months. Then I was released.
It wasn't until I came to Australia that I learned the good in humanity. I felt my heart beating for the first time and it has not stopped. I feel relaxed and secure knowing no one will attack me and I won't face any false allegations. As a human I now have respect and dignity.
I last spoke with my sisters in Myanmar two weeks ago. They were hiding in a mountain, surrounded by military personnel. My sister told me this might be the last time we would speak, as they might all be killed.
It's not a life. For my sisters, death would be a release. Everyday they are witness to violence. People go missing and they don't know what has happened to them. There are no aid agencies, no way to make a living. They live in extreme poverty under the threat of rape, arrest, beatings, and murder. Anything they own can be taken away, their villages burnt. There is no international or local media. The Myanmar government is eliminating an ethnic group systematically and hiding their violence from the eyes of the international community.
There are two reasons the government persecutes us. One is religious and another one is for political advantage. They want to pit the Buddhist majority against the Muslims. If people are busy thinking about how to kill and eliminate the Muslims, they are not paying any attention to the lack of progress and development in the country.
If you convert to Buddhism, you are safe and have citizenship, so the Myanmar government becomes popular to majority groups. They present these issues as religious issues. They say the only problem in Myanmar is the Muslims. The move toward democracy in Myanmar has changed nothing. The government is claiming to be democratic, but what kind of democracy allows the government to kill innocent people?
I came to Australia hopeful to get refugee status and become a permanent resident but my claim was rejected. I am not a citizen of any country. The Myanmar government says I am not Burmese, I am not Bangladeshi, and I'm not Australian. My lawyer says the government is very strict on boat people so they won't grant anyone permanent residency unless the government policy or government itself changes. So, in a way, I am still in limbo.
As told to Lauren Gillin. Follow her on Twitter.
Images by Michael Hili