Rohingya Women Fleeing Violence Sold Into Marriage

By Chris Buckley and Ellen Barry

GELUGOR, Malaysia — The young woman had been penned in a camp in the sweltering jungle of southern Thailand for two months when she was offered a deal.

She fled Myanmar this year hoping to reach safety in Malaysia, after anti-Muslim rioters burned her village. But her family could not afford the $1,260 the smugglers demanded to complete the journey.

A stranger was willing to pay for her freedom, the smugglers said, if she agreed to marry him.

“I was allowed to call my parents, and they said that if I was willing, it would be better for all the family,” said the woman, Shahidah Yunus, 22. “I understood what I must do.”

She joined the hundreds of young Rohingya women from Myanmar sold into marriage to Rohingya men already in Malaysia as the price of escaping violence and poverty in their homeland.

While some Rohingya women agree to such marriages to escape imprisonment or worse at the hands of smugglers, others are tricked or coerced. Some are only teenagers.

Their numbers are difficult to gauge, but officials and activists estimate that in recent years hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohingya women every year have been married off this way, and that their numbers have been increasing.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that a surge of maritime migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar this year brought an increase in “abductions and marriages arranged without the consent of women whose passage was ultimately paid for by prospective husbands.”

“Hundreds, if not thousands, of women and girls have been forced, sold or arranged for marriage via these trafficking corridors since 2012,” said Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group in Bangkok that monitors Rohingya refugees. “For some families, it’s viewed as an imperative, as a survival mechanism.”

“The trafficking gangs are treating this as a rather lucrative business,” he said, adding that for the women and girls, “being sold or forced into marriage is the least-worst outcome, and that’s a problem.”

Ms. Yunus, who now shares a house with her 38-year-old husband and 17 other Rohingyas on Penang Island, Malaysia, said she had little choice after an uncle who had promised to pay for her journey failed to do so.

“I chose to marry my husband because the smugglers needed money to release me,” she said. “We were afraid of rape. It is better to marry a Rohingya man who can take care of us.”

Sharifah Shakirah, a Rohingya refugee in Kuala Lumpur who advises refugees on resettlement, said that many of the women held by smugglers fear that if they do not find husbands quickly, “the traffickers might sell them to do sex work” in Thailand or India.

While such trafficking is not unheard-of, it appears to be deployed more commonly as a threat than an eventuality.

Some women have no say in the matter, according to Mr. Smith of Fortify Rights, which is preparing a report on marriages and human trafficking.

“They don’t care about anything,” one 15-year-old girl said of her traffickers, according to notes provided by Mr. Smith. “If someone pays money, we would have to go to them.”

The young women often undertake the journeys under pressure from parents, anxious to send their daughters to safety and to reduce their domestic burdens, and are lured on by smugglers’ rosy promises about the cost of the voyage and the good life that awaits them in Malaysia, Rohingyas and experts said.

In reality, single women who board smugglers’ ships without the means to pay become merchandise, held in a camp or aboard a ship until someone pays for their release.

If the smugglers know the woman’s family cannot afford the cost, “they will inform other people and say, ‘We have this woman,’ ” Ms. Shakirah said.

The husbands often turn out to be older and poorer than promised. Some women end up trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships.

Two years ago, Ambiya Khatu, 21, married a man in Malaysia who paid $1,050 for her release from smugglers in Thailand. “Even though he is too old for me, my mother agreed to the marriage,” she said. “There was nobody to rescue us, so I agreed.”

In Myanmar, formerly Burma, she had hoped to study nursing and work in a hospital. Now she lives in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, caring for her mother, her ill sister and her sister’s baby in a cramped room, while awaiting the return of her husband. He disappeared months ago, saying he was looking for work.

“After being rescued, my husband asked if I wanted to marry him,” Ms. Khatu said, her round, expressive face a palette of conflicted emotions. “He said, ‘If you don’t want to marry me, you can simply pay back my money which I spent on you.’ ”

That was impossible.

“I don’t know the language, so how will I work to pay him?” she said. “Also, we don’t have any relatives here, and I don’t have any legal documentation, so there was no option for me except marriage.”

Her mother, Mabiya Khatu, shook her head and murmured in disapproval. Her own husband was killed in 2012, when rioters swept into their village, leaving the family impoverished, she said. The alternative was her daughters being sold into sexual slavery, she said.

“If I didn’t give my daughter to him, then the traffickers might have sold her into the wrong hands,” the mother said. “Traffickers tried to sell both my daughters, so I got them married, and here she is in safe hands, and able to eat at least.”

The younger Ms. Khatu frowned. “I didn’t like him,” she said, “but I had to like him.”

Rohingya men who paid smugglers for brides were reluctant to discuss how the deals were struck. But a phone call recorded by investigators from Fortify Rights last September between a Rohingya woman held in a camp in Thailand and a Rohingya broker reveals the harsh calculus determining a woman’s fate.

“You have never married yet?” the broker asks, according to a transcript provided by Fortify Rights.

“I have never married,” she says.

The broker says that he knows an eligible man, an elderly Rohingya, willing to pay $780 for the rest of her journey to Malaysia.

“Will you marry?” the broker asks.

“Yes, I will marry, if that is the will of God,” she answers. “We are in a difficult situation. Would you please try to take us in two or three days? We cannot get food, water, clothes, and cannot take a bath.”

After the deal is made, the broker tells a guard in the camp that he needs several more single women for prospective husbands.

“You can see them first,” the guard says. “If you want to take one or two, that is your decision.”

The transactions are not always so clear-cut, however, especially given that Rohingya women come from a culture where arranged marriages are the norm. But in their villages, the women often know the prospective husbands, and they are likely to have more say in the decision.

In some cases, impoverished families arrange marriages in advance to pay for a daughter’s trip.

Some of the women who marry to pay a smuggler’s fare describe it as a choice, but Susan Kneebone, a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia who is studying forced migration and marriage in Southeast Asia, says that these marriages amount to trafficking when violence, threats or misleading promises are used.

“The idea of trafficking is really one of whether there has been an abuse of power,” she said. “These women actually don’t have that much freedom within their own community, I suspect, and that’s all made much worse by the fact that they’re traveling to another country.”

After anti-Muslim violence erupted in Western Myanmar in 2012, most of the refugees were men. But the number of women and children fleeing from Myanmar has risen in the past two years.

One reason is the scarcity of eligible Rohingya men in Myanmar. The shortage has also raised the cost of dowries paid by the brides’ families, said Chris Lewa, a Rohingya rights advocate based in Bangkok. Conversely, she said, the high ratio of Rohingya men to women in Malaysia made men there more willing to pay for a bride’s journey and to forgo a dowry.

This year and last year, she said, “one can safely say that at least 5,000 young women embarked on boats and would have entered in a marriage after arriving in Malaysia.”

For now, the smuggling has been paused by a regional crackdown and the rough weather of the monsoon season. But some Rohingya women are waiting for the trade to resume so they too can flee, even if the price of a ticket is marriage.

Tahera Begum, 18, a Rohingya woman who had fled Myanmar a few months earlier, was staying with her sister-in-law in a makeshift camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, waiting to continue her journey to marry a man in Malaysia who was chosen by her brother, also in Malaysia.

She had not seen a picture of the man, but they had spoken to him on the phone several times.

“When I talked to him, he said he had a job, so he had an income,” she said. “I would have been happier if I could stay here, but my brother wanted me to get married in Malaysia.

“If I get the signal from my brother or husband-to-be,” she said, “I will try again.”

Chris Buckley reported from Gelugor, Malaysia, and Ellen Barry from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Jonah M. Kessel contributed reporting from Kuala Lumpur.

from The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/03/world/asia/rohingya-women-flee-violence-only-to-be-sold-into-marriage.html?_r=1)

Limbo in Thai Dentention

Thai authorities have refused to grant refugee status to hundreds of Rohingya who arrived through human traffickers.

by Hanna Hindstrom

PHUKET, Thailand — Roshida was languishing in a squalid displaced people’s camp in western Myanmar when an unfamiliar man offered her a job in a nearby city. Unemployed with two children, she immediately agreed. The next day, she was packed into the belly of a cargo ship anchored in the Bay of Bengal.

“That’s when I realized I had been sold,” says Roshida, a 25-year-old ethnic Rohingya who only uses one name. She hasn’t heard from either of her young children since.

She found herself in an airless room full of desperate captives, including mothers clutching infants and frightened teenagers crying for their parents. Some had been abducted, she says, while others had been promised jobs or arranged marriages in Malaysia. The boat lingered for several weeks near Rakhine state in western Myanmar, gathering about 400 people, mostly other Rohingya Muslims — a persecuted ethnic group from Myanmar — and Bangladeshis, before setting sail for Thailand. Passengers each received one cup of water and a scoop of rice daily. A Bangladeshi man who begged for water one morning was beaten to death and tossed overboard.

“When I was on the boat, I was crying. I missed my kids,” recalls Roshida, now staying at a shelter in southern Thailand. “They told me, ‘If you cry, I will beat you and throw your body into the sea.’”

She is one of thousands of people exploited by a flourishing human trafficking network that transports desperate and often unwilling Rohingyas and Bangladeshis to Malaysia through Thailand. Over 25,000 people have embarked on the perilous journey since the start of this year, with hundreds dying en route, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most new arrivals are held in transit camps in Thailand’s Ranong and Phang Nga provinces before they are stuffed into trucks heading for the border with Malaysia.

For several weeks, Roshida was confined to a collapsing bamboo hut draped in muddy tarps somewhere in the jungles of Thailand’s Songkhla province. Once there, the brokers demanded $1,600 to release her in Malaysia.

 

“I told them, ‘You lied to me! I don’t have any money.’ So they burned me with cigarettes, and they beat me,” she says, lifting her dress to reveal dark scars on her feet.

In less than a month, three people died from disease, she says, and women became the targets of verbal abuse and sexual violence.

“Smugglers would take young girls who looked attractive away into the forest nearby,” she says. ““[The girls] refused to talk about it when they came back.”

Fearing for her life, Roshida tried to escape three times. Twice she was captured by locals and returned to her traffickers. Each time she was sent back, they shackled her and beat her with wooden rods. On her third attempt, she ran into a Thai couple on a rubber plantation. They called the police.

But her ordeal didn’t end there. Instead of helping her, Thai authorities accused her of entering the country illegally and jailed her for three months. In April she was finally transferred to a shelter for women and children. Now she is anxiously waiting for news about her children back in Sittwe, Myanmar.

Monitoring groups say a growing number of boat arrivals are being trafficked, coerced or misled by unscrupulous brokers. Members of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority, who are denied citizenship and heavily ostracized in the Buddhist-majority country, are easy targets. Over 140,000 people are confined to official displacement camps in Rakhine, where they are unable to travel freely or secure decent work. Nearly 10 percent of the roughly 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar are estimated to have fled since a surge in violence between Buddhists and Muslims began in 2012.

“I owned a small shop in Sittwe, but everything was burned,” says Roshida. “My husband turned to alcohol. I lost everything — my house, my business.”

Victims treated as criminals

In 2014 the U.S. State Department downgraded Thailand to the lowest possible rating in its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report, citing accounts of Thai police and army officials cooperating with smuggling rings. Though the Thai government has shown little sympathy for boat people, choosing to treat new arrivals as criminals rather than victims or refugees, officials escalated their crackdown on human traffickers in May after uncovering a patchwork of mass graves scattered across southern Thailand.

Since then, Thailand has arrested about 80 people, including police officers and Interior Ministry personnel, on suspicion of complicity with human trafficking. But only one army official was among them, raising concerns that the Thai military junta — which seized power in a coup last year — is reluctant to target its brass. No one has been arrested in Phang Nga, a hub for trafficking, even though local volunteers are maintaining a 24-hour road checkpoint along a crucial transit route.

Thailand’s crackdown has had a disastrous effect on victims. Thousands of people were cast adrift in the Andaman Sea after traffickers abandoned their ships and fled into hiding. Still, Thailand has steadfastly refused to open its borders to unwanted arrivals, opting to push boats back from shore. If they make it to land, men, who constitute the majority of boat people, are held in detention centers or prisons, while women, minors and those identified as trafficking survivors are mostly housed in shelters. Until March, Rohingyas were routinely deported to Myanmar. About 500 to 700 Rohingyas are estimated to remain in Thailand.

 

Trafficking victims have more rights than people who have been smuggled, according to Matthew Smith, the executive director at Fortify Rights, which is why “certain governments have been loath to consider these abuses in the context of trafficking.” The problem, he said, is particularly acute in Thailand, where “authorities have consistently underestimated the number of survivors of trafficking.”

Yet the Thai government insists that trafficking victims are processed in accordance with international standards. The governor of Phang Nga, Prayoon Rattanaseri, says that his province is a “role model” for victim protection and has identified over 150 trafficking survivors since last year. He blames language barriers and a dearth of Rohingya interpreters for any mistakes in registering victims.

At Roshida’s shelter, only two of the 79 people there have been classified as trafficking victims. Both are Bangladeshi. One of them is Hassan, a 22-year-old from Dhaka who was drugged and abducted in Teknaf in southern Bangladesh last year. He recently testified in Thailand’s first major case against human traffickers operating in the Andaman Sea. Unlike many other arrivals, Hassan has been able to earn a modest living working on a nearby rubber plantation.

Stuck in the middle

In late May, Thailand hosted a regional meeting to address the burgeoning boat crisis, with officials pledging to boost humanitarian access for the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). But critics say Thailand, which has not signed the U.N. refugee convention, has been reluctant to fulfill its promises. U.N. agencies still have only restricted access to Rohingya boat arrivals, many of whom are kept in cramped detention cells without access to trauma counselors, proper health care or refugee status determination.

“[Thailand] must allow UNHCR to have unconditional access to do refugee status determination interviews and recognize the results,” says Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Second, it should permit IOM to be directly involved in trafficking victim identification assessments and provide appropriate care for all those recognized as victims.”

Only a “small handful” of Rohingyas qualify for resettlement abroad, according to Vivian Tan, the UNHCR’s spokeswoman in Bangkok, and these are the most vulnerable refugees, such as unaccompanied minors and women with young children. One of them is Abdul, a 13-year-old who was abducted from his dinghy near Sittwe last November.

“If I had wings, I would fly home right now,” says Abdul, who has been stateless his entire life. He is now staying at a shelter in southern Thailand.

The United States has urged Myanmar to provide citizenship and rights to the Rohingya in order to stem the exodus. But officials have refused to budge, insisting that the Rohingyas arrived illegally from Bangladesh.

As a result, the vast majority of Rohingyas trapped in Thailand want to continue their journeys to Malaysia, fueling concerns that they will end up back in the clutches of smugglers and traffickers. Several women in Thai shelters are simply waiting in the hope that international agencies can help them join their husbands in Malaysia, with no idea of what to do if they can’t. It is not uncommon for children and women to simply vanish from shelters despite being shortlisted for resettlement in the United States.

Although Thailand’s crackdown has forced most smugglers into hiding, activists say it is only a matter of time before they return.

“The risk [of retrafficking] is certainly there,” says Tan. “We’ve been quite concerned about reports of brokers approaching women and children in shelters. When we talk to survivors in Malaysia and Indonesia, we’ve learned that people who manage to leave detention centers [in Thailand] usually end up back in the arms of smugglers.”

Roshida’s only hope is that she can reach the United States and her children can join her.

“If I head back to Rakhine, I head back to death,” she says. “There’s no point going back there.”

from Al Jazeera America (http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/6/17/In-thai-detention-centers-migrants-stuck-in-limbo.html)