By Liz Gooch
Kuala Lumpur - Rohingya refugees fleeing the recent outbreak of violence in Myanmar have begun arriving in Malaysia, amid warnings that this could mark the start of a dangerous new wave of people smuggling.
NGOs say traffickers are targeting Rohingya in Myanmar and those in refugee camps in Bangladesh, where conditions are dire, as this 101 East film shows.
A 16-year-old boy, who arrived in Malaysia in October, has told Al Jazeera that he and about 15 other Rohingya men and women paid soldiers to smuggle them in the back of a Myanmar military truck from Rakhine state to the country’s largest city, Yangon.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, Anwar (not his real name), said they were then passed onto different traffickers as they travelled from Myanmar, through Thailand and into Malaysia.
“If you give them money, they will take you wherever you ask,” he said, referring to the Myanmar military. “It’s because their purpose is to chase you out of the country.”
A cruel campaign of murder, rape and arson by Myanmar’s military, described by the United Nations as “ethnic cleansing”, has prompted more than 600,000 Rohingya to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh since August.
Anwar, who recently made the eight-day journey to Malaysia, said he fled his village in Buthidaung after the military set fire to his family’s home.
As people ran for their lives, Anwar lost his parents and 10 siblings, the youngest of whom is not yet one. He hasn’t heard from them since.
“I was scared I would be killed,” he said. “I saw fire everywhere. There was fire all around and I was with the military.”
"I knew the military were trafficking people"
Anwar said traffickers guided him and the other villagers through the jungle for three days as they crossed the Thai-Malaysian border. They had little food and slept on the ground.
Two people, who were beaten by the traffickers and had little food, died in the jungle, he said.
A journey of fear
Al Jazeera has been unable to independently verify the boy’s account, but traffickers in the region have been known for their brutality.
In 2015, mass graves were discovered in jungle camps used by traffickers on the border between Thailand and Malaysia. The victims were believed to be mainly Rohingya.
“The syndicates who were involved in this in the past were incredibly brutal, depriving people of food, depriving people of water, beating them, holding them in conditions of enslavement, selling them to the highest bidder,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive of Fortify Rights, a non-government organisation.
“Regardless of the scale with which this takes place … there is a potential that people will find themselves in the vicinity of people who will use those methods again.”
More than 62,000 Rohingya are already registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia, but NGOs say the actual number living in the country is much higher.
They expect more Rohingya will try to reach Malaysia later his month as the seas grow calmer, making boat journeys possible.
Some are finding other ways to travel to Malaysia.
Sharifah Husain, founder of the Rohingya Women Development Network, an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, says she knows of a 16-year-old boy who flew from Bangladesh to Kuala Lumpur three weeks ago using a forged Bangladeshi passport. He fled Myanmar after the latest outbreak of violence, according to Sharifah.
“His brother was slaughtered and then he ran away,” she said.
Traffickers are approaching newly arrived refugees in the camps in Bangladesh, offering passage to Malaysia for 7000 to 8000 ringgit ($1655 to $1891), according to Migrant 88, a non-government organisation with staff working in Bangladesh and Malaysia.
Khadijah Shamsul, a program director for the group, knows a Rohingya man in Malaysia who recently paid a trafficker 1000 ringgit ($236) to reserve a place on a boat for his relative in Bangladesh.
“Guaranteed it will start, but when, how, where they will land, we don’t know,” she said.
Khadijah expects there will be casualties if boats start leaving Bangladesh. In the past, Rohingya have drowned or been abandoned at sea.
“They die, they go missing, they never reach the shore,” Khadijah said.
But for many, she said, it’s a risk worth taking.
“Anywhere is better than Myanmar and anywhere is better than Bangladesh,” said Khadijah.
Smith, from Fortify Rights, said it’s difficult to predict the number of Rohingya who will try to reach Malaysia.
“We do know people are making efforts to get to Malaysia” he says. “It’s the largest pool of people that we’ve seen for traffickers to prey on. It’s a very chaotic situation in Bangladesh and that will only contribute to the potential for trafficking.”
Unaccompanied children in the camps could be most at risk, he added.
The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency is expecting boats carrying Rohingya to begin arriving soon.
“Yes, we are expecting them,” Zulkifili Abu Bakar, director-general of the agency, said in a statement, adding that the coastguard would increase surveillance, especially in the Malaysia-Thailand border area.
“If there is any trespassing of any foreign migrants, the Malaysian coast guard shall surrender them to the Malaysian Immigration Department if they were found entering the country without valid travel documents,” he said.
“The Malaysian coast guard will provide humanitarian assistance such as food and first aid to the boats carrying Rohingya as and when necessary.”
The Immigration Department did not respond to requests for comment.
In Malaysia, refugees are considered illegal immigrants and are not allowed to work or access public schools or healthcare.
NGOs are calling on the government to provide more support for the Rohingya, many of whom work illegally.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has publicly supported the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, but Sharifah, the Rohingya NGO worker, says he needs to focus on those closer to home.
“It’s time for him to put it into action,” she said.
Anwar, the teenager who recently arrived in Malaysia, said he had no choice but to flee Myanmar.
“How can we live there? Villagers get arrested for no reason. If you cannot pay money, they will kill you,” he said, referring to the military. “They say ‘you have to go, this is not your country’.”
His priority now is to find his family and get a job to help support them.
“I was living in fear until I came to Malaysia,” he said. “Now I am a little more at peace.”