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For young Rohingya brides, marriage means a perilous, deadly crossing

BANGKOK — Ms Haresa counted the days by the moon, waxing and waning over the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Her days on the trawler, crammed into a space so tight that she could not even stretch her legs, bled into weeks, the weeks into months.

Rohingya refugees wait in a queue to collect relief supplies at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on Oct 15, 2020.

Rohingya refugees wait in a queue to collect relief supplies at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on Oct 15, 2020.

BANGKOK — Ms Haresa counted the days by the moon, waxing and waning over the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Her days on the trawler, crammed into a space so tight that she could not even stretch her legs, bled into weeks, the weeks into months.

“People struggled like they were fish flopping around,” Ms Haresa, 18, said of the other refugees on the boat. “Then they stopped moving.”

Dozens of bodies were thrown overboard, some beaten and some starved, survivors said. Ms Haresa’s aunt died, then her brother.

Six full moons after she boarded the fishing boat in Bangladesh with hopes that human traffickers would ferry her to Malaysia for an arranged marriage, Ms Haresa, who goes by one name, and almost 300 other Rohingya refugees found sanctuary in Indonesia last month.

Her sister, 21, died two days after the boat landed.

Banished from their homes in Myanmar and crammed into refugee settlements in neighbouring Bangladesh, thousands of Rohingya have taken the perilous boat crossing to Malaysia, where many from the persecuted minority group toil as undocumented workers. Hundreds have died along the way.

Most of those now undertaking the trip, like Ms Haresa, are girls and young women from refugee camps in Bangladesh whose parents have promised them in marriage to Rohingya men in Malaysia. Two-thirds of those who landed in Indonesia last month with Ms Haresa were female.

Ms Amira Bibi and her family escaped their native Rakhine state, in Myanmar’s far west, as the military torched hundreds of Rohingya villages three years ago. The fourth of nine siblings, she said she knew her place in life.

“My parents are getting old and my brothers are with their own families,” she said. “How long are my parents going to bear the burden of me?”

Through the matchmaking of a cousin in Malaysia who works as a grass-cutter, Ms Bibi’s parents found a fiancé for her. She asked for details about the man but none were provided, apart from his name, she said.

After surviving more than six months at sea in a failed attempt to reach him, Ms Bibi spoke from Indonesia with her fiancé a country away. The phone call lasted two minutes. “He sounded young,” she said.

That is the extent of what she knows about him.

Ms Bibi initially told staff from the United Nations refugee agency that she was 15 years old, but later amended her age to 18. Child marriage is common among the Rohingya, especially in rural populations.

Mostly stateless, the Muslim minority has been subjected to an apartheid-like existence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Over the past few years, waves of pogroms have pushed the Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh, where human traffickers prey on the young and desperate in the refugee camps, along with their families.

The flow of people has surged since 2017, when more than three-quarters of a million Rohingya fled an ethnic cleansing campaign in Myanmar. With the coronavirus pandemic tightening borders, the journey by sea has gotten even more difficult. For months this year, boats laden with hundreds of Rohingya migrants drifted at sea, unable to find a safe haven. Authorities in Thailand and Malaysia repeatedly pushed them away.

Fishermen in Aceh, on the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, are among the few who have welcomed the Rohingya. A battered trawler with around 100 refugees landed in June, followed by the larger boat on Sept 7.

“The question is how Southeast Asia as a region responds to this humanitarian crisis on its doorstep,” said Mr Indrika Ratwatte, director for Asia and the Pacific for the UN refugee agency.

The Bangladeshi government, struggling with its own vulnerable population amid the pandemic, has threatened to relocate thousands of Rohingya from the camps to a cyclone-prone islet in the Bay of Bengal.

The silty island was uninhabited until the Bangladeshi navy forced about 300 Rohingya — many of them women and children — to shelter there this summer, when their attempt to sail to Malaysia ended after months at sea.

Earlier this month, several Rohingya died in clashes between different gangs in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, which is considered the largest settlement of refugees in the world. Some women say they venture out as little as possible to use public latrines for fear of sexual violence.

Ms Shamsun Nahar, 17, said she was desperate to leave the camps, even though she had heard the stories of how dangerous the crossing could be. Her father, a cleric, found her a match, a man from the same village in Rakhine who is working as a carpenter in Malaysia.

“I talked to him on a video call, and I liked him from every angle,” Ms Nahar said of their brief courtship by phone. “He was not too big, not too small. He looked good.”

Her fiancé was to pay US$4,500 (S$6,110) for her passage, Ms Nahar said. The spot she occupied for months on the boat was near the engine, so noisy that she could not hear others’ voices.

The smugglers and brokers, both Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, beat them with plastic pipes, she said. Food was served on a plastic sheet smeared with remnants from the previous weeks, shrouding every meal with a putrid smell.

“I am safe now, but I am separated from my family and my fiancé,” Ms Nahar said after arriving in Indonesia last month. “What will happen next? I do not know.” THE NEW YORK TIMES  

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Rohingya Rakhine refugees United Nations

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