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Deceived and ransomed: Rohingya refugees huddle in Indonesia

'I didn’t know it was going to be like this,' says Mohammad Idiris, a Rohingya Muslim speaking from a refugee camp in Aceh. 'If I had known, I would have stayed in Myanmar.'

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A Rohingya boy sorts used clothing donated by local residents at a temporary shelter in Bayeun, Indonesia, on Monday. Since May 10, thousands of Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants have landed ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Thousands more are believed to be trapped at sea in boats abandoned by their captains.

Binsar Bakkara/AP

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Last October, Mohammad Idiris put himself in the hands of human traffickers in Myanmar. His decision followed years of ethnic persecution of Rohingya Muslims, and it started a harrowing journey of more than six months that never brought him to his chosen destination, Malaysia.

Thousands of Rohingya, acting out of a sense of desperation in Myanmar and lured by unscrupulous traffickers, are taking dangerous boat journeys that have seen many like Mr. Idiris left adrift on the open ocean and have seen others, unable to pay ransom, killed in camps where mass graves have recently been discovered in Thailand and Malaysia.

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Idiris says that traffickers lied to him, held him for ransom, and shuffled him between boats. His ordeal on the open seas ended in early May when his crowded ship landed on the coast of Aceh province, Indonesia. On May 20, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to shelter some 7,000 mostly Rohingya boat people now believed to be stranded. 

Before setting sail from Myanmar, traffickers told Idiris that he could pay for his passage once he found a job in Malaysia. But once he was en route, they moved him to three different boats and demanded $2,000 from his family for him to be delivered safely.

Never considered leaving before

“I didn’t know it was going to be like this,” says Idiris, who says his family sold land to pay a broker. “If I had known, I would have stayed in Myanmar.”

Idiris says he never considered leaving his hometown of Maungdaw, a district in Rakhine state, until three years ago. Back then, he worked as a fisherman to help provide for his family.

"We were poor but we could eat," he told The Monitor at a camp in Aceh with 329 other refugees.

But in 2012, a waves of sectarian violence between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority engulfed Rakhine. At least 140 people were killed, most of them Rohingya, and 140,000 were displaced. Many remain confined to low-quality camps.   

Idiris was not displaced. But repressive policies enacted by the Buddhist-majority government made it difficult to make a living and added to an overall climate of fear. 

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“We have a curfew in our village and I couldn’t get out to work,” he says. “I was too afraid of the Rakhine people and the Army, and two people were killed when they went out of our village to fish.”

Now that feeling of desperation has been compounded among Rohingya. Thousands are leaving with promises of reaching distant shores. They are often joined by economic migrants from Bangladesh. Many have lost their lives looking for a safe harbor.

Vast human trafficking networks

Other migrants have died after exposing themselves to a vast and ruthless transnational network of human trafficking. Reports this month indicate many Rohingya disembarked in southern Thailand or northern Malaysia where they were beaten, starved, and tortured until their families paid a ransom.

In the past month, Thai and Malaysian authorities have discovered several camps with mass graves containing hundreds of bodies. The discovery in Thailand was part of a crackdown on traffickers after unscrupulous boat crews left refugees stranded at sea for weeks.

Idiris appears comparatively fortunate. He spent his first six days at sea in a cramped boat with 300 people. Then traffickers transferred him to a boat with 900 people, he says. Traffickers told him his family needed to pay $2,000 in ransom. Idris says they sold land but the traffickers said no money arrived. He was kept on board six months working in the kitchen.

In early May, he suddenly got sent to a different boat with 580 people that the crew soon abandoned.

Two days later, the boat arrived in Aceh, where the local residents have welcomed the refugees. Their future remains uncertain, as nations in the region have yet to establish a comprehensive plan of how to handle the migrant crisis. 

Warm greeting in Aceh

While migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh are mostly young men, many Rohingya women and children embark in the boats. Say Nuwara, a 14-year-old girl from a village near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, stayed four months at sea with her mother and 13 other relatives. They arrived in Aceh on the same boat as Idiris.

Three of Ms. Nuwara's relatives were killed during inter-religious riots in 2012. Her family's land was part of a large-scale confiscation by the government to relocate people displaced by the violence. In the process, the family was deprived of its livelihood. They ended up in a camp.

“Life was too difficult in Myanmar," she says. "We decided to go to Malaysia because we have relatives there that can help us."

So far, Aceh has received the refugees with open arms. Fishermen last week rescued two other migrant-filled boats even though the Indonesian government had previously declared that the Navy would push back any ship approaching its coast.

That policy, shared until last week by Thailand and Malaysia, resulted in what human rights groups called “human ping pong,” with boats pushed from country to country.

Acehnese families are visiting the Rohingya in their camp and inviting them to their homes.

“We feel happy here, because these people are treating us as brothers, but we are still worried about our families in Myanmar,” Idiris says.

When asked if he wants to go to Malaysia, he replies, “I like to be here, but I need to go to a place where I can make a living."