A Rohingya migrant woman, who recently arrived in Indonesia by boat, talks on the phone to her mother in Malaysia from inside a temporary compound for refugees in Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 22, 2015.

(Bangkok) – Rohingya and other survivors of dangerous boat voyages from Burma and Bangladesh describe horrific treatment by unscrupulous smugglers and traffickers in Burma, and abuse and neglect aboard ships, Human Rights Watch said today. A regional meeting scheduled on May 29, 2015, in Bangkok must find solutions to the so-called boat people exodus.

Rohingya explained to Human Rights Watch how they endured two months at sea, packed below decks in cramped conditions with limited food and water and very poor sanitation. Boats carrying approximately 100 mostly Rohingya men and women each abandoned passengers at an undisclosed location along Thailand’s coast, leaving them to fend for themselves until they were found by the Thai authorities. According to international agencies, 3,000 to 4,000 people may still be aboard ships at sea.

“Survivors describe how they flee persecution in Burma only to fall into the hands of traffickers and extortionists, in many cases witnessing deaths and suffering abuse and hunger,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Interviews with officials and others make clear that these brutal networks, with the complicity of government officials in Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia, profit from the desperation and misery of some of the world’s most persecuted and neglected people.”

Regional states and other governments with the ability should make commitments to redouble search-and-rescue efforts and ensure that thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers and migrants have full access to procedures for seeking international protection and humanitarian assistance.

“Burma and Bangladesh need to stop persecuting Rohingya, while Thailand and Malaysia urgently need to shut down camps where boat people are held to end abuses and ensure that no more mass graves are created on their soil,” Adams said.

In recent weeks scores of boats carrying thousands of Rohingya asylum seekers and migrants from Burma and Bangladesh have arrived in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The three governments responded by pushing the boats back out to sea, leading to domestic and international condemnation and forcing them to reconsider these policies. In response to pressure, the foreign ministers of the three countries met in Kuala Lumpur on May 21. Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to permit boats to land, but only with the proviso that the international community provide humanitarian assistance and help resettle or repatriate all the passengers within one year.

Conditions for Rohingya in Burma are extremely dire, with limited access to education, employment, and the freedom to travel or observe their own religion cited as reasons for flight. Some flee voluntarily to escape these abusive conditions, but Rohingya also told Human Rights Watch that in some cases, smugglers lured and duped people to make the sea journey without disclosing what was involved, and sometimes handed them over to traffickers.

One 13-year-old Rohingya girl told Human Rights Watch how men grabbed her in front of her family: “They dragged me to the boat, they had sticks, and threatened to beat me. I screamed, I cried loudly. My parents were weeping, but they couldn’t do anything.”

Another 16-year-old Rohingya girl said:

"There was a group of six men, they were Rakhine Buddhists from Bangladesh, they had knives and guns. They forced me to get on a boat, they told me I was leaving Myanmar [Burma]. They pushed me to the small boat, I fell into the water up to my shoulders. Fifteen other Rohingya were on that boat. All the people were forced onto the boat."

A third Rohingya girl told of being grabbed by traffickers along with her husband and child: “I was on the way to my father-in-law’s house with my husband when a broker and many men took us. They forced us onto the big boat. On the boat I couldn’t understand their [the traffickers’] language, I cannot speak Burmese or Rakhine, I don’t know who they are.”

In all instances, the conditions on the boats were terrible. One Rohingya girl told Human Rights Watch:

"We spent two months on that boat, more people kept coming to the big boat, small boats all the time. We [the women] were under the boat, it was so small. I couldn’t see outside the boat, just feel it go up and down. People were throwing up, I felt dizzy and uncomfortable the whole time."

Another Rohingya girl said: “When I got to the big boat … I cannot explain my feeling I was so scared. We were about 16 people in one small room. The doors were always locked. The smugglers put the food and water through a small hole, we never saw them.”

The abuses continued on land. On May 25, Malaysian government authorities announced they had discovered as many as 139 similar graves in a series of 28 camps on the Malaysian side of the border. This followed the discovery of mass graves in Thailand in May. Thailand and Malaysia need to act immediately to close any remaining camps of victims and offer aid and protection to any survivors found.

Rohingya and Bangladeshis described how they have been held in camps in Thailand and Malaysia until they could pay a ransom. They were beaten and abused if they could not pay. One Rohingya woman who was held in such a camp on the Thai side of the border told Human Rights Watch that she was severely abused to force her relatives to pay up: “The brokers beat me with sticks and bamboo and put out cigarettes on my legs and ankles because I could not raise the money.”

The current crisis was in part sparked after the discovery of mass graves of people suspected to be Rohingya and Bangladeshi. Pretending that the government did not know that Rohingya and others were regularly trafficked and smuggled to camps in Thailand on their way to Malaysia, the Thai authorities began a crackdown on transit camps on May 1.

The poor treatment of the Rohingya has been accompanied by callous remarks by regional leaders. Burma’s political leaders deny the existence of Rohingya, denouncing them as “illegal Bengalis.” Burmese officials initially denied any of the people in the boats came from Burma. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh said the migrant workers from her country were “mentally sick” and vowed to punish anyone leaving the country illegally. Prime Minister Tony Abbot of Australia called the boat people “reckless” and when asked if Australia would consider resettling any Rohingya found to be refugees, replied, “Nope, nope, nope.”

Ahead of the regional meeting on “Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean” convened by the Thai government on May 29 in Bangkok, the leaders of Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia should show greater recognition of and respect for the rights of the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis on these boats. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and other international agencies should be permitted access to survivors of boat voyages to assess their claims for protection in accordance with international standards and to help identify people who are fleeing persecution, those who were trafficked, and those who are migrating for economic reasons. Burma and Bangladesh should hold to account anyone found to be abusing Rohingya and others by coercing them or deliberately deceiving them to embark onto boats, where they are held in atrocious conditions.

“Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia need to agree to never again engage in pushbacks of people stuck at sea, find any remaining boats, bring the people on board to safe ports, and ensure that their rights are respected,” Adams said. “Just as important, there will be no long-term solution unless Burma ends its rights-abusing and discriminatory policies toward the Rohingya and joins other countries in taking action against smugglers and traffickers who abuse and prey on them.”

For details about the long-term ill-treatment of Rohingya in Burma, and the accounts of survivors Human Rights interviewed, please see below.

Accounts of Rohingya Who Survived the Journey

I spent my whole life in my village, I’ve never been outside. I’ve never been to school, I can only read the Koran. There is a curfew from 4 p.m., after that we cannot go outside the house. The Myanmar police would come to the village and always steal what they want. The Rakhine men came to my house, about 12 men. They yelled at me: “Your brother is in Malaysia you have to go!” They dragged me to the boat, they had sticks and threatened to beat me. I screamed, I cried loudly. My parents were weeping, but they couldn’t do anything. I went onto the boat with three men. When I got to the big boat … I cannot explain my feeling I was so scared. The boat is about 15 meters long. Below it had four floors, about one-meter high, with separate rooms, women on one side, men on the other, and only men on the top deck. We were about 16 people in one small room. The doors were always locked. The smugglers put the food and water through a small hole, we never saw them. We were only allowed to go to the toilet once a day. There were a lot of people on top of the boat, but I never knew who the smugglers were.
– Yasmine, female, age 13, from Maungdaw township, Arakan State

My family was in trouble with the government, my brother was a teacher and they threatened him, closed the mosque, and he had to leave to go to Malaysia. Burmese soldiers arrested and beat my father, and after releasing him my family was warned we would die if we stayed. The government took our house and gave it to Rakhine Buddhists from Bangladesh (who had fled violence there in 2013). A group of six men, they were Rakhine Buddhists from Bangladesh, they had knives and guns. They forced me to get on a boat, they told me I was leaving Myanmar. They pushed me to the small boat, I fell into the water up to my shoulders. Fifteen other Rohingya were on that boat. All the people were forced onto the boat, we had to walk through the water, it was about six hours on that small boat to the big boat. There where 95 people on that big boat. I was there for two months. I was not sure, only thought I was going to Malaysia. I was sick, throwing up, I stayed on that boat just like dead people. I don’t know what I’ll do in Malaysia, I have no money. I miss Myanmar, but I know I cannot go back.
– Arefa, female, age 16, from Maungdaw township, Arakan State

I was on the way to my father-in-law’s house with my husband when a broker and many men took us. They forced us onto the big boat. On the boat I couldn’t understand their [the traffickers’] language, I cannot speak Burmese or Rakhine, I don’t know who they are. I was two months on the boat. I was underneath, my husband was on top. One day my husband came down to me, he was bleeding from his head and shoulder and arm. The smugglers beat him, he didn’t know why. I didn’t see him again until we were all dropped at the island. When the Thai navy came we were sent to different places. The last time I saw him he was still in pain.
– Sameera, female, age 16, from Maungdaw township, Arakan State

My brother in Malaysia contacted a broker who found me to go to Malaysia, he said it was safer to work there. I heard the news about many people dying on the way but I cannot stay any longer in my country. I cannot get married to anyone in my village because we are poor and cannot afford to pay the officer [Burmese officials] for permission; it is about 600,000 Kyat [US$600]. I have never been to school, it is too expensive to register. The broker took me and six others by boat to the coast at night time [through the riverways]. We got on a bigger boat, there were 95 people on that boat. We spent two months on that boat, more people kept coming to the big boat, small boats all the time. We [the females] were under the boat, it was so small. I couldn’t see outside the boat, just feel it go up and down. People where throwing up, I felt dizzy and uncomfortable the whole time. I wore the same clothes the whole time, I couldn’t wash. It took ten days on the boat to get to Thailand. We were transferred to the island by small boat at nighttime, it took about one hour, we were covered the whole time. When I got to the island I thought I would die, there was no food or water. We were two days on the island. The Thai navy came and gave us food and water, took our pictures, and took us to Thailand. I just want my brother and parents to know I’m here. I cannot go home, Myanmar [Burma] is not my country.
– Hafsa, female, age 14, from Maungdaw township, Arakan State

The smuggler came to our village and offered to take us for free to Malaysia to join our husbands, or the men we had been promised to marry. After the violence of 2012, most of the men left for Malaysia. The smuggler said for free, but when we got on the boat the smugglers asked for money, but we didn’t have any. They kept us under the boat, we couldn’t see anything. People were on the boat for different times, some two months, some eight days. But once you got on, you stay on, and you can’t move.
– Raziyaa, female, age 18, from Buthidaung township, Arakan State

I don’t know where my husband is. There was no work in my village, so I decided to go to Malaysia to look for my father. The broker is a Rohingya, I didn’t know him but thought I should go, he asked for two month’s salary for the journey [in Malaysia]. There were 250 people on the boat, mostly men. It took two months to sail to Thailand. We thought we would die as the food and water got less and less, we had just rice and salt and one glass of water a day. We stopped at Satun [in late 2014]. I spent two nights at the jungle camp in Satun, there were 200 people in the camp. I was told there are 74 of these camps. After two nights, 21 women we were put in the back of a pickup truck to drive to Malaysia. It was so hot and crammed, and the driver was going too fast. The police stopped us and arrested us all.
– Minara, female, age 18, from Buthidaung township, Arakan State

I was living in the IDP [internally displaced persons] camp, it was hard. I was tricked onto a boat with a promise of work. I didn’t want to go to Malaysia. There were about 370 people in the camp, most Rohingya but about 50 from Bangladesh. From a small boat I was transferred to a bigger boat, with smugglers who were Burmese from Kawthaung [southern Burma]. From the bigger boat we were sent to a camp near Padang Besar [on the Thailand-Malaysia border]. I tried to escape from the jungle camp, but I ran into a Thai villager who handed me back to the camp. The people [Thai civilians] around the camp, they know if they send Rohingya back to the camp they get 5,000 Baht [$150]. The brokers beat me with sticks and bamboo, and put out cigarettes on my legs and ankles because I could not raise the money to be sent to Malaysia. I was there for one month. The second time I escaped I was found by Thai people on a rubber plantation and they gave me to the [Thai] police. I spent five months in prison, and now I cannot return to Sittwe, but I want to go there and get my children.
– Khalida, female, age 25, from an IDP camp in Sittwe, Arakan State

Long-Term Ill-Treatment of Rohingya in Burma

The dramatic surge in boat people leaving western Burma and Bangladesh has its roots in decades of repression and denial of rights to the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority. In 1978, the Burmese army staged a military operation that drove over 250,000 Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh, who forcibly returned many of them soon afterward.

The Rohingya have been denied full citizenship rights because the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law made it almost impossible for Rohingya to prove their claims to citizenship. In 1991, Burmese security forces again violently expelled hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh. In 1995, Bangladesh forcibly returned many Rohingya to Burma, where they have lived predominantly in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships along the border, under restrictive conditions that severely curtail their freedom of movement, ability to seek work, and access to basic social services, and curbs on the right to religion. The Burma government has refused to accept the term “Rohingya” and refers to them as “illegal Bengalis.”

In Bangladesh, there are approximately 30,000 recognized Rohingya refugees in UNHCR-run camps who arrived in Bangladesh before 1993. Since that time, Rohingya have not had any opportunity to lodge claims in Bangladesh for refugee status regardless of their need for international protection. Consequently, another estimated 30,000 who are not recognized refugees live in makeshift sites around these camps near Teknaf in Cox’s Bazaar, and another 250,000 to 300,000 undocumented Rohingya live around the area. Those outside the UNHCR-run camp often face abuse and discrimination from local Bangladesh officials and communities.

Starting in 2005, small boats carrying Rohingya and Bangledeshi migrant workers started leaving the coast of southern Bangladesh, carrying mostly men to Malaysia to join the migrant worker population there. These small vessels often came ashore in Thailand, and utilized a network of smuggling routes from Thailand into Malaysia. The number of boats arriving gradually grew, prompting the Thai authorities to take action. In 2009, several ships were towed long distances out to sea by Thai security officials, sparking a major international outcry marked by critical media coverage. Thailand then changed to a so-called help on policy, where officials were ordered to re-provision boats that arrived in Thai territorial waters with humanitarian supplies, refuse them the right to land in Thailand, and direct them south to Malaysia.

However, this policy later mutated into a policy of corruption and directing arriving boats into the hands of gangs, who then placed the people aboard in jungle camps where they were held and extorted for money before being permitted to travel to Malaysia. The exodus has grown to tens of thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, some who are fleeing violence and discrimination, and others who are seeking work. A recent report by the office of the UN high commissioner for refugees estimated that 25,000 people travelled on boats from Burma and Bangladesh in the first three months of 2015, with an estimated 300 dying of starvation, dehydration, or beatings by smuggling crews, or as a result of fights on board ships.

Sectarian violence between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya and other Muslims erupted first in June 2012. A second round of violence in October 2012 resulted in government-backed crimes against humanity amounting to a campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed to drive the Rohingya from urban areas of Arakan State. Overall, there were at least 167 deaths and widespread property destruction. There remain over 140,000 internally displaced Rohingya and Arakanese in camps throughout Arakan State. Many Rohingya have been receiving only rudimentary and inadequate assistance due to government restrictions and intimidation by Arakanese ultra-nationalists against international aid workers.

The March-April 2014 census conducted by the Burmese government with assistance from the UN Population Fund did not enumerate people who self-identified as Rohingya. Preliminary results released in August estimated that 1.09 million people were not counted. In response to the prolonged displacement, the government formulated a draft Rakhine Action Plan, which was disclosed by the media in September. The plan contained discriminatory provisions that could, if enacted, ensure long-term segregation of displaced Rohingya and enshrine statelessness as a national policy. Months after a promised release, the Rakhine Action Plan has yet formally to be made publicly available, which adds to concerns in affected communities.

In 2015, the Burmese government stripped the Rohingya of the right to hold temporary identification cards, so-called white cards that gave them the right to vote in the 2008 constitutional referendum and the 2010 nationwide elections, but did not guarantee the full rights of a citizen. Over 400,000 Rohingya have relinquished the cards ahead of the May 31 deadline, with the Burmese government promising some form of ID to be issued in the future if Rohingya self-identify as “Bengali,” not as Rohingya. Also deeply troubling is the passage of four so-called race and religion laws, which many see as targeting the Muslim minority in Burma generally, and the Rohingya in particular, including the recently passed Population Control Healthcare law, which could be used to limit Rohingya birth rates. It is these developments, and the escalated violence against Rohingya since 2012, that has largely fuelled the current exodus.