Would-be passengers are charged more than $100 for a space on rickety, 40-foot-long vessels. Charity is shown to those who can scarcely afford the trip, the operators add, but some payment is required to cover the hefty bribes owed each week to border guards at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal.
The journey south is perilous. About one in 10 boats, carrying 80 to 150 people, either veer off course or disappear. “Of course we are very concerned about the risks, but the people are insisting they want to go,” says Shamshir, 42, a boat builder.
The United Nations, which calls the Rohingya one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, says that of the 13,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims who fled Burma and Bangladesh last year, at least 485 were known to have drowned.
For refugees, the peril does not end at sea. In January, more than 800 Rohingyas were rescued in raids on trafficking networks in southern Thailand, according to Thai media reports. A Thai army colonel and another high-ranking officer are under investigation on suspicion of involvement, along with a local politician. Several Rohingya traffickers also have been arrested.
With two days left before his scheduled departure from Sittwe, Abu Kassim, who said he witnessed his uncle being killed by paramilitary thugs, assembled his provisions: biscuits, chocolate bars, bottled water and oral rehydration salts.
He said he was sober about the risks ahead. “Of course we are afraid of the traffickers, but the suffering may still be less than this life, so we must try,” he said. “God willing, we will reach Malaysia.”
Motlagh reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.