The Rohingya ordeal: a maritime ping-pong

21 January 2016 by Mihir Bhonsale

CC - Flickr - AK Rockefeller

Mohammad Haryot [1] aged 15 left one of the camps in Rakhine state of Myanmar with seven other members of his family for Malaysia. A boat ride to reach a larger vessel cost them $500 each after which they set sails in the Bay of Bengal along with 300 co-fearers without food or water. But a week into their journey, they were intercepted by the navy near Sittwe and sent back. The passage cost them $2,000 and the Haryot family still do not know how much they owe to their traffickers for this unsuccessful attempt.

This is the ordeal for thousands of Rohingya Muslims who made an unsuccessful bid to reach foreign shores. Many like the Haryot’s, to make a trip, sold everything including camp food rations and house and, are left with nothing at their disposal.

Carrying the burden of debt, Mohammad still wants to go to Malaysia as there are no means of livelihood for Rohingyas in the Rakhine capital, Sittwe. Rohingya Muslims are a minority group living in the Rakhine state of Myanmar bordering Bangladesh. Myanmar has denied them citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Act.

Military operations under the alibi of flushing out Mujahideen rebels, a separatist Muslim outfit fighting a war against the government, forced thousands of Rohingyas to move to neighbouring Bangladesh. Those living within Myanmar have been internally displaced and forced into camps run by aid agencies, due to a series of anti-Rohingya riots in 2012. Forced into living a life of dependency that hardly takes care Care Le concept de « care work » (travail de soin) fait référence à un ensemble de pratiques matérielles et psychologiques destinées à apporter une réponse concrète aux besoins des autres et d’une communauté (dont des écosystèmes). On préfère le concept de care à celui de travail « domestique » ou de « reproduction » car il intègre les dimensions émotionnelles et psychologiques (charge mentale, affection, soutien), et il ne se limite pas aux aspects « privés » et gratuit en englobant également les activités rémunérées nécessaires à la reproduction de la vie humaine. of their basic needs, they are taking perilous journeys, both by land and sea in search of shelter and livelihood opportunities.

In the first quarter of 2015 itself 25,000 Rohingya people are said to have departed, approximately double of what the departure rate was in 2013 and 2014. UNHCR reports that out of the 25,000, around 300 died at sea and 620 since October 2014, primarily because of starvation, dehydration, and beatings of crew members or even sinking of vessels. [2]

Tricked by traffickers

Tayub was tricked in by brokers who approached him while he was tending his cattle with a job offer in Malaysia. [3] He even did not have time to say goodbye to his mother as he was hurried through by the brokers on their motorcycle promising him a free passage to Malaysia.

Tayub was unaware of the little chance he had of exit for thousands of Rohingyas and Bangladeshis stranded at the sea, since the crackdown. Such brokers are paid $100 by the ship captains for each body delivered irrespective of what happens to them at the sea.

Rohingya migrants trafficked through deadly camps in Thailand have been sold to Thai vessels to produce seafood. According to an investigation by the Guardian [4], so lucrative is the trade in the slaves that some local fishermen have been carrying Rohingya migrants instead of fish.
Slave labour has found its way in the supply chain for prawns sold to American and British supermarkets. Also, according to the trafficked, complicity of Thai state officials in this trade is common in an industry that is worth $7.3 billion.

UNHCR in a report [5] found that since October 2014, disembarkation in or around Ranong (Thailand), followed by a daylong overland transfer to smuggler’s camps in forests and plantations surrounding Padang Besar and Thailand-Malaysia border has continued to be the experience of majority who have migrated from the Bay of Bengal.

There operates a transnational trafficking syndicate that ferry’s across people to distant shores. This syndicate has its network not just in countries of origin of the migrants, but also in destination. UNHCR found migrants being put into camps run by the traffickers after they reach foreign shores to evade the immigration authorities.

Debt ridden life

Azima, a 17 year old woman was obliged to leave for Thailand in the hope of building a family with Hussain who was anxiously waiting for her in Thailand. [6] Azima’s father was too old for the farm and the police harassing her, she decided to join Hussain, whom she knew since childhood growing up in the same village.

Hussain had left Myanmar for Thailand by road with his mother. Azima, after taking the perilous journey survived reaching the Thai shores where she was hurled into camps run by the traffickers, until someone released her paying the ransom.

Hussain, her fiancé had to deposit 70,000 baht in a smuggler’s bank account to have her released. Hussain’s was earlier forced to leave Rakhine state, tired of police atrocities to join his father, Asiya who in 1991 had fled to Thailand to join the revolutionary movement.

Hussain and his father are in severe debt. They had to pay bribes to the authorities and also forced to labour for building roads in the night and work as porters without payment.

While some who have made it to Thailand and Malaysia and are living in deplorable conditions with huge debt, scores of Rohingya Muslims are paying off smugglers and returning to the squalid camps they used to live in after being held for months on overcrowded ships that were to take them to Thailand but did not move far from shore.

Since the crackdown, traffickers have let people come back by paying $200 per body.

Before the crackdown began, a boat with 10-15 people would leave with migrants every week and there were a dozen of boats pecked up at the time of the crackdown. [7] Camp leaders after the news of the crackdown collected money from the camps in order to pay off the traffickers and help at least some of the hundreds stranded in Myanmar’s waters to return.


At the root of the continued prosecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar and in other countries is their statelessness. Myanmar has denied them citizenship and has used military against them, making them go through an endless travesty. Rohingya’s are often referred to as “Bengalis” or “Kalar” a racial slur used by the Burmese to denominate people from the Indian sub-continent.

Bangladesh that houses the largest number of Rohingyas after Myanmar does not recognise them as citizens. There are around 25,000 people from the community who are living in official camps near Chittagong and Dhaka, the figure of those living outside such camps is much higher. There is no official data on such people living in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, besides in other parts of the world.

Known as the “most prosecuted minority in the world”, the Rohingyas have become the objects of “maritime ping-pong”, a phenomena that refers to nations turning the desperate people from the community, back, while adrift at sea. They have been blamed for posing security threats in Bangladesh and India.

Meetings-after-meetings have failed to break the impasse on owning responsibility of the community. While the impasse between nations, continues, Rohingyas continue to live in destitution and become victims of state policies and societal exclusion. They remain to face a raw ordeal.


[2UNHCR, “Some 25,000 risk sea crossings in Bay of Bengal over first quarter, almost double from year earlier”,, 8 May 2015,

[3Esther Htusan, “Brokers tricking Rohingya children onto trafficking boats”, Associated Press, 18 May 2015,

[4Emanuel Stoakes, Chris Kelley and Annie Kelley, “Revealed: how the Thai fishing industry trafficks, imprisons and enslaves”, The Guardian, 20 July 2015,

[5Caroline Davies, “Migrants on boat rescued off Indonesia recall horrific scenes”, The Guardian, 15 May 2015,

[6Oliver Holmes, “Burma’s Rohingya: one woman’s journey to marriage on a smuggling boat”, The Guardian, 20 July 2015,

[7Antoni Slodkowski, “Beaten and starving, some Rohingya flee boats, return to camps”, Reuters, 20 May 2015,

Mihir Bhonsale

is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, India



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