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The plight of Myanmar's Rohingya

As many as 5,000 Rohingya refugees are left stranded at sea in rickety, overcrowded boats like this one, seen off the coast of Indonesia's Aceh Province in May 2015. © Reuters/Antara

By Hiroshi Kotani
September 30, 2016

PADANG BESAR, Thailand At a hospital near the border between northern Malaysia and southern Thailand, some 800km south of Bangkok, a young Rohingya man strained every muscle in his body just to walk a few gentle steps with the support of a metal walking frame.

Back in May 2015, Zama Ahmad, was bedridden, almost skeletal and barely able to move. When spoken to, he was able to manage little more than a grunt in response as he stared vacantly at the ceiling.

A year on, Zama is almost unrecognizable. When he walks along a hospital hallway, there is a distinct look of hope in his eyes. He can get to the bathroom by himself and has bulked up to 45kg, having once weighed as little as 20kg. Three years have passed since he was brought to the hospital.

Zama Ahmad strives to walk again at a hospital in southern Thailand. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

"I feel a little better now, but I am still unable to pick up food and move it to my own mouth and brush my own teeth, because I have trouble moving my fingers correctly," Zama said. The mobile phone by his bed is a constant source of encouragement, helping him stay in touch with his mother and wife, who remain in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine.

Zama's story is a typical one. After deadly clashes between the Rohingya and the Buddhist majority erupted in Rakhine in 2012, more than 100,000 Rohingya homes were burned to the ground. Zama turned to human traffickers in order to flee to Malaysia. "The boat was packed with about 1,000 migrants," he said.

His memories of what happened after reaching Thailand are only a faint blur. He was left for dead beside the road in the border town of Padang Besar, where he was mercifully brought to a hospital just in time.

JUNGLE CAMPS The plight of Rohingya fleeing aboard smuggling vessels drew significant international attention in late April 2015, when the authorities in Padang Besar discovered a suspected human trafficking camp in the jungle near the town. Hundreds of people had seemingly been held captive in the camp and a mass grave of 30 bodies, believed to be Rohingya, was unearthed nearby.

Now deserted, the camp was little more than a few shabby huts on a steep slope with garbage strewn around the grounds. The stench was overwhelming, suggesting that far more people had been held there than could possibly have been sanitary.

The Thai authorities acknowledge the existence of a transnational human trafficking network in the region. Many Rohingya are persuaded or coerced into boarding vessels and transported to the port of Ranong on the Andaman Sea coast of southern Thailand. Refugees are then bundled into trucks and delivered to camps in the jungle, where they are held captive. Only those whose relatives agree to pay a ransom, usually of around 40,000 baht ($1,150) to 100,000 baht per person, are allowed to cross into Malaysia. Those unable to pay are forced to remain and endure the brutal conditions in the camp.

NEW LIFE A year ago Zama shared the ward with another Rohingya man in his mid-20s. Sorot Alam, who went by Ahmeen, was hospitalized after being found injured in a jungle migrant camp. He, too, was frighteningly thin.

Back in Rakhine, where he lived with his family of 12, he was asked by an acquaintance of his father to board a smuggler's boat to seek refuge in Malaysia. He eventually agreed and ended up in a jungle camp packed with nearly 500 other refugees, where he spent three and a half months. "Fifty people around me died. Most of them starved to death," he said, lying in bed with his eyes welling up. "In my dreams, my mother often died."

Sorot is no longer at the hospital, having been given the chance to start a new life in the U.S.

He was granted refugee status under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' mandate once restored to health. He left Thailand five months ago and now lives in Washington D.C. His final words to his companion before leaving were: "Take care. Please continue your walking practice." Zama has since found a renewed enthusiasm for his rehabilitation, according to hospital staff.

In a phone conversation from the U.S., Sorot said he had started working at an automobile parts factory two months ago after taking a three-month English course. He earns $1,300 a month, part of which he transfers via Bangladesh to his family in Rakhine.

ENDLESS WAIT Whether Zama will be as lucky remains uncertain. According to Rachakorn Surabhakdi, a field associate at the UNHCR Regional Office in Thailand, a total of 191 Rohingya were resettled in the U.S. between 2013 and the end of May 2016. As of mid-July, 342 Rohingya refugees remained at immigration detention facilities across the country. Having been through so much to get there, they now face the uncertainty of not knowing if or when their detention will end.

Despite the huge risks, the flood of people attempting the perilous journey appears unlikely to subside. Mohammad Saber, chairman of the Rohingya Thailand Group, believes Rohingya will continue to risk their lives at sea to escape the persecution and the humanitarian situation in Myanmar.

Nikkei staff writer Anchalee Romruen contributed to this story.

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Rohingya Exodus