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Migrant Lives

After The Rohingya Boat People Get Sent Back To Myanmar

Portrait of Yar Yar Kan, one of the many Rohingya Muslim minority rejected by the Burmese — and shunned by other Asian countries in an attempt to emigrate.

In a refugee camp in Sittwe, Myanmar
In a refugee camp in Sittwe, Myanmar
Phyu Zin Poe

SITTWE — Yar Yar Kan is feeding his baby in a small bamboo shelter in Myanmar (the country also known as Burma), where his family of six has been living in a refugee camp for the past three years. He has no job, no opportunity and can't legally leave the camp's confines, leaving him struggling to find enough food for his wife and children.

He recently returned here after struggling in the sea for three months, a failed voyage to Malaysia, which won't accept these desperate Rohingya Muslims who are among the most persecuted people in the world — rendered stateless by their own government, rounded up and effectively jailed in camps without jobs or schools.

"I knew if I had told my wife, she would have cried, and I was afraid that I wouldn't have been able to go," he recalls of his decision to escape. But he was and is desperate to find a way to support his family. "My family would have a better life if I had reached Malaysia. And I could have sent them some money."

His friend had introduced him to a smuggler. "I told him that I wanted to go to Malaysia," Kan says. "He agreed and asked me to pay $2,000 in advance. But I didn't have the money. He said I could pay him back with my salary for the next six months once I got a job there. After that, I could be a free man."

At midnight several months ago, without telling his wife, he managed to escape the highly guarded camp.

"The boat crew took all of our belongings — mobile phones, food," Kan recalls. "And they pointed guns at us. That's when I realized that I had made a mistake. I thought I might never see my mother again, my wife, my brothers and sisters."

There were 400 people on board, 100 of them women. "They gave us a handful of rice, one or two meals a day. There was also a small portion of curry, not enough drinking water ... They beat us if we asked for more food and water."

Brutal conditions

The women had to deal with bigger dangers. "There was screaming at night, and we asked the women what happened," he recalls. "They said that they had been raped. They refused and shouted for help, but they were beaten. The crew drugged them so that they felt dizzy and could not move."

After two months, the boat finally reached Thai water. Malaysian authorities were inspecting the area, so the smugglers left the refugees and went by another ship.

"The crew ordered me to watch over the boat and taught me how to drive it," he says. "Then they left. We drove the ship back toward Myanmar. It took us a month to arrive in Myanmarese waters."

There is no official record available about how many people have tried to escape from the refugee camp. But an immigration official from Araken state, where Sittwe is located, says nearly 200 people have returned. The government has arrested nine smugglers and charged them with criminal trafficking.

"There are 14 gates that they can use to escape the camp," says Khien Soe, chief immigration officer at Sittwe. "We check everyone who passes through these gates. Our navy checks those who try to go by boat."

But there's not much they can do to stop trafficking, says Arakan State Speaker Hla Thein. "We formed a group and we've started campaigning among those people as much as we can. We can't do anything for those who try to go illegally because we don't know their route."

Tens of thousands of Rohingya live in the Sittwe refugee camp — cramped and without electricity. The Myanmar government moved them there in 2012 after violence broke out between Buddhists and the Muslim minority.

Yar Yar Kan's wife Nu Nar Balcon says she now knows where her husband had been for those few months. She says she wishes that he could have reached Malaysia. "I dreamed that he would make it abroad and escape from the smugglers, then our family would get money," she says. "Now, my dream has vanished."

But Yar Yar Kan is planning another escape — soon. "I'm very disappointed with my life," he says. "I can't live without a job. I want to escape from the camp again."

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