In transit to nowhere
Soldiers tortured him and evicted his family from its home. A smuggler sold him into slavery. A broken-down boat ended his chances of escaping to Australia, leaving him stranded at sea before immigration authorities found him and detained him.
And so, at 26, Muhammad Arif found himself in Indonesia, where he has discovered an entirely new obstacle. He is now trapped in a hotel, along with hundreds of other Rohingya, a Muslim minority whose quest to flee persecution in Myanmar often places them in a maze from which there is almost no exit.
The Rohingya’s place among the thousands of migrants starving and thirst-stricken on Southeast Asian waters has, in recent weeks, trained new attention on the indignities they have suffered. They are denied citizenship in their birth country. Their homes have been seized, their children beaten by angry Buddhists and their husbands tossed in nightmarish camps.
Academics and lawyers are increasingly raising the spectre of “genocide,” heightening the stakes for the international community, while financier George Soros on Tuesday drew parallels to his own treatment under Nazi occupation. “In 1944, as a Jew in Budapest, I too was a Rohingya,” he told a Rohingya conference in Oslo. (Myanmar human-rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi was pointedly not invited because of her unwillingness to criticize Rohingya treatment, a stance she maintained in a recent Globe and Mail interview.)
Those Rohingya who can afford it leave in the dark of night, in a desperation that went largely unnoticed until boats stranded at sea were compared to “floating coffins,” sparking an international crisis.
But the horrors the Rohingya face are not new, and the rush of outrage over their plight must confront both the complexity of their situation and the difficulty in extracting them from it. Although Rohingya are small in number – just over one million – they are ensnared by centuries-old colonial history and hatreds, complicated relations among Southeast Asian nations and race-infected politics.
For people like Mr. Arif, even escape often means moving from one bleak horizon to another. His situation offers a preview of what lies in store for the hundreds of Rohingya who have recently landed on Indonesia shores. They have been welcomed by locals with gifts of fried fish and free language lessons, but they will soon face governments unwilling to let them rebuild lives – a mess that involves Canada, too.
Mr. Arif, now 30, lives at Hotel Pelangi, which is hidden behind a narrow alley in Medan, the Sumatra city that is Indonesia’s fifth-largest. Nearly 270 Rohingya call this and three other Medan hotels home, some since 2009 in what the International Organization for Migration (IOM) calls “community accommodation.” More than 230 others live in a similar state in another Indonesian city.
For them, Indonesia’s sprawling archipelago formed the southern boundary between the blackness of a stateless existence and the promise of freedom beyond. It has become, instead, a place that has left them permanently temporary.
They cannot leave Medan, and are harassed by police if they wander too far from the hotels. They can be sent to a detention centre if they stay out past 10 p.m. They live on $116 a month provided by the Australian government to keep them here, but cannot work or build lives – dreams of wives, children and careers in indefinite abeyance.
“They are stuck. Completely stuck,” said Steve Hamilton, the Jakarta-based deputy chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration. “It’s a horrible thing when you get Rohingya refugees, because you know they have almost no chances for resettlement, and even if they get fed up and say, ‘I want to go home,’ unfortunately I can’t help with that either. There’s nowhere for them to go.”
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees itself may be partly responsible, through what one aid worker said is a policy to restrict the number of Rohingya being sent to other countries. The UNHCR doesn’t want “to resettle thousands that will turn into tens of thousands and then turn into hundreds of thousands,” said one aid worker, who works with the agency and asked not to be named to avoid jeopardizing relationships.
Hendrik Therik, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Indonesia, denied such a policy exists. Resettlement is available to “anyone who is recognized as a refugee,” he said, and other countries have the right to take – and reject – who they want.
Yet at the Medan hotels, Rohingya feel singled out. They’ve watched refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia come and then leave for other countries with freedom and jobs. In six years, they say, no Rohingya person has been resettled. “What the UNHCR is doing is unfair,” said Muhammad Nur, 27, who has been at the hotels since 2010.
There are exceptions, but they tend to involve those with dramatic tales. Canada’s 300 Rohingya – an estimate from recent arrivals, since Ottawa doesn’t track them – include six young men who were on a migrant boat that saw 98 of 130 people die in 2013. Its arrival in Sri Lanka attracted global headlines, and the six are now in Kitchener, Ont., which is also where Maung Myint Tun arrived in January. The 25-year-old Rohingya man had worked as an interpreter for Al Jazeera on an investigative report into refugee fraud that placed him in danger.
Coming to Canada has left him studying English, developing a fear of the cold and marvelling at his good fortune. “This is freedom,” he says.
But the web of misfortune that entangles his people has lifted only partially. His relatives have all sought different routes out of misery, and are spread across the world. Among them is Zahid Hussin, a second cousin. He lives in the Medan hotels, and his inability to leave has, in a very personal way, drawn Maung Myint Tun into the Rohingya pain in Indonesia.
“It’s very sad, because there is no light for him, he has no future,” he says of his second cousin. “He is wasting so many years of his life. And I cannot help him.”
Mr. Arif was born in Maungdaw, a far northern district that has been wracked by violence in Rakhine, the far western Myanmar state the Rohingya call home. He was the oldest son in a family with eight children. Their care became his responsibility after he turned 10 and his father left home. So it fell to him to defend the family against the military when it came to seize their home, telling him it wanted to hand the house and land over to Buddhists.
“They said, ‘This house does not belong to you and your family. It belongs to the government.’”
His family had lived there for at least three generations. But when he pushed back, the army hauled him to jail, where soldiers punched him in the face, tied his hands and repeatedly burned him with cigarettes. The purpled divots will mark his left forearm and right bicep for life. After a month, the soldiers brought him home, handing him papers to give up the house and telling him, “If you don’t sign, we will detain you forever and torture you every day.”
His mother begged him to sign, and the family became homeless. He was 19.
Months later, Mr. Arif left for Bangladesh. “Living in Myanmar is very dangerous,” he said. He spent four years studying at an Islamic school, but was living illegally in Bangladesh and couldn’t find work. He decided to go to Thailand when a smuggler offered him free passage after hearing about his expertise with the Koran, which he had memorized by age 14. “The agent said, ‘Come along for luck. Pray to Allah for us.’”
When he arrived in Thailand, the agent sold him to another agent, who placed him in slavery. He spent a year on small fishing boats, and then another year tilling corn and chilis. He could speak no Thai and was beaten when he tried to speak to his captors. He slept on the boats and, later, by himself in a hut in the fields. “I was so lonely,” he said. He was thin and weak when he arrived, but two or three times a week was injected with something “to make me strong for work.” He has no idea what it was.
After two years, another Rohingya man came to the fields. Together they conspired to leave and, late one night, walked away with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They ate what they could scrounge off the streets until they forded a river to Malaysia, where Mr. Arif found work teaching the Koran.
But Malaysia was hardly the promised land. He was living illegally, making him terrified police would find him – and he noticed that other Rohingya had spent two decades there, with no path to leaving. There was no future in Malaysia.
He wanted to go somewhere he could truly be free. He dreamed of Australia and in 2011 a smuggler brought him to Indonesia, where he boarded a boat heading south. Two days later, the boat broke down, and the smuggler abandoned them to the open sea. The 57 Rohingya on board spent a night “reading the Koran and praying for our lives,” Mr. Arif said. That night, he said, whales helped push the boat toward shore. “It was a miracle from God.”
The miracle was short-lived. Police found the boat and handed the Rohingya off to immigration authorities, who locked them in a detention centre. Sixteen months later, Mr. Arif was sent to one of the Medan hotels.
The hotels are run by the IOM, with funds provided by the Australian government, which pours money into other countries to care for people it does not want to arrive on its own shores. IOM provides Mr. Arif free accommodation, health care, English classes and $116 a month, his sole source of income. He spends more than 10 per cent of it on a gym membership, one of his sole activities away from the hotel. His arms ripple beneath his T-shirt.
Barred from work by restrictions on refugees in Indonesia, he has a fixed daily routine: wake, pray, read the Koran, chat with others, eat breakfast, chat with others, eat lunch, pray, nap, wash, pray, eat, go to the gym and then sleep. Cuts by Australia have meant some recreational facilities, including table tennis and badminton, were taken away last year, and the $116 is now available only to the first two members of a family; children get $46 a month.
Still, by scrimping Mr. Arif is able to save for the dream he still holds of going to Australia – even if that may be a fantasy.
Asked if Australia would accept Rohingya earlier this month, Prime Minister Tony Abbott replied: “Nope, nope, nope.” Even if a smuggler could get people from the Medan hotels to Australia, they would likely find themselves not in Sydney or Perth, but on the southern Pacific islands of Nauru or Manus, where Australia runs costly immigration detention centres to keep refugees off its own soil. They, too, are not havens: Refugees at the Nauru centres have rioted and sewn together their own lips in hunger strikes. Australia has offered to bring some to Cambodia instead, but so far only four refugees, including one Rohingya man, have accepted a transfer to a country virtually as poor as the one they left.
The Rohingya “just can’t get a break. They’re constantly in confinement and without protection and without rights,” said Amy Smith, executive director with Fortify Rights, a human-rights group. “It’s not only a lifetime, but generations of being confined without any sort of freedoms.”
For Mr. Arif, it all means there is little he can do but wait, and attempt to keep hope alive. “I am so bored. There are things I am capable of doing. I can teach the Koran. But here, my knowledge is useless,” he said. “I have been here for three-and-a-half years doing nothing.”
Murky history, religious tension have long affected Rohingya people's fate
At the heart of the conflict over the Rohingya is whether they are entitled to occupy the land where they live in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The history is murky, giving rise to so many contorted retellings of the past that it’s difficult to sort out what’s true and what’s not.
What is clear is that Buddhists have lived for millennia in what is now Myanmar, while Muslims are more recent arrivals, with the first coming perhaps in the late 15th century. Rakhine state, where they are concentrated, includes territory that was part of the ancient Buddhist Arakan kingdom and where Muslims also lived.
Arakan once stretched from what is modern-day Bangladesh deep into what is now Myanmar, with a capital that was a cosmopolitan centre rivalling London and Amsterdam. It bridged Muslim and Buddhist cultures and lasted for centuries, before falling in 1784 to a Burmese king who looted the capital, torched the royal library and enslaved Arakanese men, who today are known as Rakhine.
Both Buddhists and Muslims were affected by the upheaval, but stranded Rohingya migrants in Indonesia believe their subjugation began on that distant date. In their home villages, they say, there are 400-year-old mosques that are evidence that Muslims lived in Rakhine state for centuries. Other Burmese see it differently: Many claim that most Rohingya are not native at all but are descendants of Bangladeshis who came as workers and settlers to Burma during the time of British colonial rule.
The borders between the countries did not exist when that movement occurred, or the borders were not enforced – meaning it’s not clear that, even if these people were Bangladeshis, they were transgressing any boundaries when they came.
Further complicating matters, both the Rohingya and the Rakhine peoples feel oppressed by the Burmese and also bear ill will toward each other. “People feel under siege” and historical issues have festered rather than moved toward resolution, said Jacques Leider, the world’s leading authority on the region’s history and currently an adviser to the United Nations. “So problems have dragged on into today. To put it very frankly, it’s a mess.”
Myanmar is also a political tinderbox, in part because Muslims are regarded with suspicion in a deeply Buddhist country. The government has instituted new rules for inter-religious marriages.
Even among the educated Myanmar cultured elite, the Rohingya are offered scarce sympathy. In his celebrated history of Burma, The River of Lost Footsteps, author Thant Myint-U does not once mention them by name. One book the government has published is called The Rohingya Hoax and accuses Bangladeshis of masquerading as Rohingyas to fraudulently win sympathy.
UN workers have decades of experience in sorting out Bangladeshis from Rohingya, using linguistic and geographic clues, and even differences in how they tie their longyi saris. And for many Rohingya, their background is far more curse than blessing.