Denied citizenship in their home country of Myanmar, denied land, medical care, education and jobs, even denied the ability to walk town to town, the one million Rohingya people who live in this largely Buddhist nation have taken flight to find new homes all over the world. Thousands pay smugglers to take them to Malaysia by boat to find a new home, and the journey is dangerous.
At Granta, United Nations employee Keane Shum shares the Rohingya’s tragic story. Shum is charged with monitoring refugees in Southeast Asia, and she has worked with the Rohingya for three years. As if their suffering back home weren’t horrific enough, the smugglers abuse the Rohingya, underfeeding them, beating, and raping them, then keeping them at sea while they extract more money through ransoms. And when refugees are intercepted, they’re often sent back to a home where they aren’t considered citizens.
Around the same time, the captain of a larger smuggling vessel nearby, carrying as many as 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis, also abandoned ship. He also fled on a trailing speedboat, after telling his passengers to sail at 220 degrees in order to reach Malaysia the next morning. But there is nowhere in the Andaman Sea where a heading of 220 degrees will point a ship to Malaysia. The captain was almost certainly directing them towards Indonesia.
Wherever this ship was headed, it ran out of fuel the next day. Passing fishing boats gave some fuel and directed the Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Indonesia. The following morning, 11 May 2015, two Indonesian navy vessels arrived with water, dry instant noodles and biscuits, and returned later in the day to tow the ship towards Malaysia. “We gave them fuel and asked them to proceed,” an Indonesian navy spokesperson told Agence France-Presse. “We are not forcing them to go to Malaysia nor Australia. That is not our business. Our business is they don’t enter Indonesia because Indonesia is not the destination.”
The ship drifted for nearly two days until being approached near Penang on the afternoon of 13 May by two Malaysian navy vessels, which also provided food and water. Overnight, the Malaysians towed the ship back into Indonesian territory. When the Malaysians untied from the ship, multiple passengers remember the Malaysians giving instructions to stay put while they went to retrieve other boats in the area. Then we’ll bring you all to Malaysia, the passengers said they were told.
The next day, Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister, Wan Junaidi, acknowledged to the Associated Press that Malaysia had turned back both this ship and Hasina’s. “We have to send the right message,” he said. “They are not welcome here.”