TIME Malaysia

Rohingya Survivors Speak of Their Ordeals as 139 Suspected Graves Are Found in Malaysia

Human remains being disinterred from an informal cemetery near an abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.
James Nachtwey for TIME Human remains being disinterred from an informal cemetery near an abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.

Burma's persecuted Muslim minority takes unspeakable risks into order to flee to Malaysia

Less than a kilometer from Malaysia’s border with Thailand, the trappings of death are littered across the jungle: a stretcher made of branches to carry bodies, reams of white cloth used to wrap the deceased in Muslim tradition and, most menacing of all, empty boxes for 9-mm bullets.

On May 25, Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, confirmed that there were at least 139 suspected graves strewn across the Perlis range of hills that rise from Malaysia into Thailand, in the vicinity of nearly 30 abandoned camps. How many bodies each possible grave contains is not yet clear, nor is it known how the people may have died. But these remains are believed to be a grim by-product of the human-smuggling trade that for years has transported persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Burma, as well as, increasingly, Bangladeshis desperate to escape poverty back home.

For years, desperate individuals have boarded rickety boats to cross the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, then trekked through Thailand’s southern jungles to their ultimate destination: Malaysia. But with the smuggling routes through Thailand into Malaysia disrupted by police investigations, thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis are thought by the U.N. to be stuck at sea, as traffickers figure out how to salvage their human cargo and captains abandon the boats for fear of the official crackdown.

Around 3,500 Rohingya and Bangladeshis have managed to land in Malaysia and Indonesia in recent weeks, after months at sea. With Southeast Asian governments at first unwilling to take them in, the boats — their holds packed with hundreds of people, like modern-day slave ships — floated between different national waters in what the U.N. described as “human ping pong.” Only last week did the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia officially agree to offer shelter.

For now, the suspected graves in northern Malaysia’s Perlis state are marked with lone branches, the earth covered by a scattering of oversized rainforest leaves. On Tuesday, forensic teams — including one that recently returned from Ukraine, the site of the downed Malaysia Airlines jet — began sifting through the soil to recover bodies. It is a process that forensic analysts gathered at a makeshift police encampment in Wang Kelian, a few kilometers from the hill-top burial grounds, say will take weeks, if not months.

Only one body was discovered above ground. It was found in a wooden holding pen, the lower part wrapped in the sarong that is commonly worn in Burma and parts of Bangladesh. So badly decomposed was the body that forensic investigators removed it from the site in five separate bags.

An abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.
James Nachtwey for TIMEAn abandoned camp allegedly for trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis in mountainous jungle on the Malaysian side of the Thai-Malaysian border.

Malaysia’s suspected burial ground is not the first to be discovered along the porous border with Thailand. Earlier this month, 33 bodies were unearthed in Thailand, less than 500 m from some of the Malaysian suspected graves on the opposite side. Initial police reports indicated that the cause of death for most of the bodies found in Thailand was either starvation or disease. Often, according to TIME interviews with more than 20 Rohingya who have taken the same trafficking route through Thailand into Malaysia, the agreed-upon price for the journey is jettisoned once the victims reach the jungle camps on the border. There, they are essentially held to ransom until family members either back home or in Malaysia pay much higher sums. Food is scarce and beatings common, say survivors.

Shanu binti Abdul Hussain says she, her three small children and her brother-in-law were imprisoned in a camp of the Thai side of the border for 26 days in December before her husband, who was already working in Malaysia’s Penang state, was able to meet a $4,150 ransom. (The family originally was told the voyage would cost one-third the price.) Her husband, Mohamed Rafiq, was given a Malaysian bank account number and sent the money through a cash-deposit machine in Penang. “Waiting after I sent the money was the hardest part,” he says. “I thought, what if the money was too late? What if one of my children has died?”

Since beginning their operation on May 11, Malaysian police have found a network of 28 camps deep in the Perlis jungle, one of which North Brigade police officer Mohd. Salen bin Mohd. Hussain estimates was abandoned just one week before it was discovered. Police believe one camp held 300 people, while others are far smaller. Crude holding pens girded by saplings hint at forced confinement, as does a coil of metal chains. Sentry tree houses poke through the foliage. “I am not surprised by the presence of smuggling syndicates,” Malaysian national police chief Khalid tells TIME. “But the depth of the cruelty, the torture, all this death, that has shocked me.”

This year, Malaysian police say they have arrested 37 people in connection with human smuggling, including two policemen from the state of Penang. In 2014, 66 people were charged in connection with the trade. But for human traffickers to have operated in border areas with such impunity for so many years — no matter how thick the foliage may be — it’s hard to imagine a complete lack of official complicity. Earlier this month, the mayor and deputy mayor of the Thai border town Padang Besar were arrested. Other local officials in Thailand have been detained.

Yet the trade has been going on for years, with the number of Rohingya fleeing Burma (officially known as Myanmar) escalating after Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Rakhine (or Arakan) state exploded in 2012, with the stateless Rohingya bearing the brunt of the violence. Hundreds of this Muslim minority are believed to have died, and around 140,000 have been herded into camps, where disease stalks a vulnerable population. Bereft of their homes and land, many Rohingya see opportunity in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation, no matter how hard the journey. Others allege they were kidnapped onto trafficking boats, as the smugglers struggle to find enough people to fill their holds. The traffickers are also targeting Bangladeshis from across the border with Burma; they, unlike the Rohingya, have little hope of ever gaining refugee status in Southeast Asia.

So far, Malaysian police have been combing a 50-km stretch of the Perlis jungle. What else will be found in the coming days? Locals speak of ghosts up in the hills by the Thai border. “I thought I would die,” says Dilarah, a Rohingya, of her 38-day journey from western Burma, through the camps on the Thai-Malaysian border. She is 6 years old.

TIME Malaysia

Malaysia Finds Graves of Suspected Trafficking Victims

Malaysian National Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar speaks at press conference in Wang Kelian, Malaysia on May 25, 2015
Joshua Paul—AP Malaysian National Police Chief Khalid Abu Bakar speaks at press conference in Wang Kelian, Malaysia, on May 25, 2015

This follows similar news of graves found in Thailand

(KUALA LUMPUR) — Malaysian authorities said Sunday that they have discovered a series of graves in at least 17 abandoned camps used by human traffickers on the border with Thailand where Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burma have been held.

The finding follows a similar discovery earlier this month by police in Thailand who unearthed dozens of bodies from shallow graves in abandoned camps on the Thai side of the border. The grim discoveries are shedding new light on the hidden network of jungle camps run by traffickers, who have for years held countless desperate people captive while extorting ransoms from their families.

Most of those who have fallen victim to the trafficking networks are refugees and impoverished migrants from Burma and Bangladesh, part of a wave of people who have fled their homelands to reach countries like Malaysia, where they hope to find work or live free from persecution.

As Southeast Asian governments have launched crackdowns amid intensified international pressure and media scrutiny, traffickers have abandoned camps on land and even boats at sea to avoid arrest.

Malaysian Home Minister Zahid Hamidi told reporters that police were trying to identify and verify “mass graves that were found” in the region near the Thai border.

“These graves are believed to be a part of human trafficking activities involving migrants,” he said, adding that police have discovered 17 abandoned camps that they suspect were used by traffickers.

There was no immediate word on how many bodies had been recovered. Zahid said that each grave probably contained anywhere from one to four bodies, and that authorities were in the process of counting.

He said he was shocked at the discoveries, because “just last week, we went there … to see for ourselves.” He said he expected more camps and graves to be found “because they have been there for quite some time … We are still investigating, but I suspect they have been operating for at least five years.”

Local media outlets said the graves were found in two locations in the northern state of Perlis. The state borders southern Thailand’s Songkhla province, where at least 33 bodies were found earlier this month.

According to the Malay-language Utusan Malaysia newspaper, police found 30 large graves containing hundreds of corpses in mid-May in forests around the Perlis towns of Padang Besar and Wang Kelian.

The English-language Star Online said 100 bodies were found in a single grave in Padang Besar. It said police forensics teams had arrived there Friday night to investigate, and the area had been cordoned off.

Human rights groups and activists say the area on the Thai-Malaysia border has been used for years to smuggle migrants and refugees, including Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority in Burma.

In many cases, they pay human smugglers thousands of dollars for passage, but are instead held for weeks or months, while traffickers extort more money from families back home. Rights groups say some have been beaten to death, and The Associated Press has documented other cases in which people have been enslaved on fishing boats.

Since May 10 alone, more than 3,600 people — about half of them from Bangladesh and half Rohingya from Burma — have landed ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Thousands more are believed to be trapped at sea in boats abandoned by their captains.

Last June, the U.S. downgraded Thailand and Malaysia to Tier 3 — its lowest category — in an annual assessment of how governments handle human trafficking.

On Saturday in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he has been speaking to regional leaders about the crisis and urging them to find a solution.

Malaysia and Indonesia announced last week that they would provide temporary shelter for up to one year for migrants recently found or still stranded at sea. The U.S. has said it will settle some of them permanently.

Four Malaysian navy ships began searching for boats Friday, but their operation is limited to Malaysia’s territorial waters. The Pentagon said Thursday that Washington was readying air patrols to aid in the search, but a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Bangkok said the offer of assistance was still awaiting clearance.

The Rohingya, numbering around 1.3 million in Burma, have been called one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Long denied basic rights, they have been driven from their homes in mob attacks in Burma’s Arakan (Rakhine) state several times since 2012.

More than 140,000 were displaced and are now living under apartheid-like conditions in crowded camps. More than 100,000 more have fled by sea.

Pitman reported from Bangkok. Associated Press videojournalist Syawalludin Zain contributed to this report.

TIME Burma

Burma Rescues Over 200 Boat People

Rescued migrants sit on an Acehnese fishing boat upon arrival in Simpang Tiga, Aceh province, Indonesia, May 20, 2015
Binsar Bakkara—AP Rescued migrants sit on an Acehnese fishing boat upon arrival in Simpang Tiga, Indonesia on May 20, 2015

Southeast Asian countries have been accused of playing "maritime ping-pong"

Burma says its navy has rescued 208 migrants aboard two fishing trawlers off the western coast.

According to the director of the president’s office, Zaw Htay, the migrants are Bangladeshi men.

They were found off the coast of Rakhine state, where most of the Rohingya minority Muslims have been fleeing persecution in the majority-Buddhist nation and thousands became stranded in the Andaman Sea.

Authorities in Burma do not recognize the Rohingya, refer to them as Bengalis and consider them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

About half of the more than 3,000 migrants who landed on the shores of Indonesia and Malaysia are Rohingya from Burma and the other half from Bangladesh proper. They share the same language and religion.

Htaw says the Burma navy will provide humanitarian assistance, conduct verification and return them to where they came from.

— Aye Aye Win, Yangon, Burma

___

10 a.m. (0300 GMT)

The U.N. refugee agency is estimating that over 3,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants — or even more — could still be adrift in the Andaman Sea.

The exact numbers are not known, but the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says it triangulated reports in the media and other sources and estimates the current number could be over 3,000 — or more that no one knows about.

More than 3,000 Rohingya minority Muslims fleeing persecution in Burma and Bangladeshi economic migrants also on the boats with them have already landed in Indonesia and Malaysia, and over 100 in Thailand.

Only Rohingyas are being given a one-year temporary shelter while Bangladeshis face repatriation.

Malaysian navy chief Abdul Aziz Jaafar says four vessels are searching for any migrant ships that could still be out at sea, and three helicopters and three combat boats are on standby.

___

3 p.m. (2200 GMT)

The U.S. military says it is preparing to help countries in the region address the humanitarian crisis of the Rohingya migrants stranded at sea.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool told The Associated Press Thursday that the Department of Defense “is responding to this crisis and taking this seriously. We are preparing to stand up maritime aviation patrols throughout the region and working with local partners to help with this issue.”

It was the first indication that the U.S. military is ready to take direct role. Washington has been urging governments in the region to work together to conduct search and rescue and provide shelter to thousands of vulnerable migrants.

— Martha Mendoza, Santa Cruz, California

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10 a.m. (1400 GMT)

A bipartisan group of 23 U.S. lawmakers is urging the Obama administration to prevent Southeast Asian seas from becoming a “graveyard” for thousands of Rohingya boat people.

The lawmakers made the appeal in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry late Wednesday, ahead of discussions on the crisis between Burma’s government and the No. 2 ranking U.S. diplomat, Anthony Blinken, in Naypyitaw, Burma’s capital.

The members of the House of Representatives said the United States should provide support in search and rescue and humanitarian assistance for migrants in imminent danger in the Andaman Sea after fleeing “systematic repression” in Burma.

The U.S. should also work with Southeast Asian nations and address the “root cause” of the crisis, it says. The letter is strongly critical of President Thein Sein’s government for pursuing “hate-filled” legislation against minorities in Burma. It recommends targeted U.S. sanctions against those who incite violence against the Rohingya if the situation continues to deteriorate.

The top-ranking Republican and Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee are among the signatories of the letter, which was provided Thursday to The Associated Press. Lawmakers provide oversight, but don’t set U.S. foreign policy.

— Matthew Pennington, Washington, D.C.

TIME Burma

U.S. Condemns Burma’s Treatment of Rohingya as Migrant Crisis Intensifies

Nearly 4,000 people remain stranded at sea with dwindling supplies

Washington called on the nations of Southeast Asia to marshal their forces to help thousands of Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants who have been marooned on the high seas for weeks.

UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, warned on Tuesday “that time was running out” for the migrants fleeing sectarian violence in Burma and poverty in neighboring Bangladesh.

“We estimate that nearly 4,000 people from [Burma] and Bangladesh remain stranded at sea with dwindling supplies on board,” Adrian Edwards, a UNHCR spokesman, told journalists in Geneva. “Unconfirmed reports suggest the number could be higher.”

On Wednesday, fishermen from the Indonesian province of Aceh helped rescue more than 430 stranded migrants, many of whom were suffering from dehydration and starvation after spending months on rickety trawlers.

Indonesian, Thai and Malaysian officials held an emergency meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to address the desperate plight of the migrants, who were abandoned by traffickers following a crackdown on their smuggling networks in Thailand. Following the meeting, both Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to stop pushing boats back to sea and provide temporary shelter to thousands adrift at sea. (Thailand made no such guarantee.)

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department lambasted Burma, officially called Myanmar, for failing to address the root cause of the crisis, which observers say stems largely from the government’s refusal to recognize the Muslim minority as lawful citizens.

“What needs to change here is that the Rohingya need to feel welcome in the country of their birth, in the country of their parents’ birth, of their grandparents’ birth,” Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, told CNN during an interview on Tuesday.

“They need to be treated as citizens with dignity and human rights.”

Within Burma, the Rohingya are widely discriminated against by the country’s Buddhist majority and are commonly viewed as interlopers from Bangladesh, despite overwhelming evidence that they’ve lived in the country for generations.

The Burmese government has even refused to discuss the migrant issue with other nations who used the term Rohingya instead of Naypyidaw’s preferred, and racially loaded, term of Bengalis.

“If we recognize the name, then they will think they are citizens of Myanmar … Myanmar cannot take all the blame for these people who are now at sea,” Zaw Htay, a director in the office of Burmese President Thein Sein, told CNN.

The Rohingya were effectively rendered stateless after being stripped of their citizenship by the former ruling junta in 1982 and have been systemically excluded from Burmese society since.

Following a rash of ethnosectarian rioting in 2012, more than 120,000 Rohingya have been forced to reside in squalid displacement camps, bereft of adequate food or medical supplies, which has been instrumental in pushing thousands to flee by boat with the hopes of reaching Malaysia.

In a bulletin published on the front page of the state-backed daily the Global New Light of Myanmar on Wednesday, Burma’s Foreign Ministry promised to begin providing humanitarian assistance to “anyone who suffered in the sea.”

Read next: The Rohingya, Burma’s Forgotten Muslims by James Nachtwey

However, analysts argue that little will change in the long run until Burma and neighboring countries address the systemic conditions that prompt this wretched community to risk their lives at sea rather than live in the country of their birth.

“The governments need to pull Myanmar to the table regardless of whatever excuses they try to come up with,” Lilianne Fan, co-founder of the Indonesia-based Geutanyoe Foundation that works to assist the refugees and migrants in Aceh, tells TIME.

According to the statistics compiled by the International Organization for Migration, more the 88,000 people have made the dangerous voyage across the Bay of Bengal since 2014, including 25,000 who arrived during the first quarter of this year.

At least 1,000 are believed to have died at sea because of “the precarious conditions of the voyage, and an equal number because of mistreatment and privation” wrought by human traffickers.

TIME indonesia

Over 430 Migrants Taken to Indonesia After Months at Sea

Migrants sit on their boat as they wait to be rescued by Acehnese fishermen on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia, May 20, 2015
S. Yulinnas—AP Migrants sit on their boat as they wait to be rescued by Acehnese fishermen on the sea off East Aceh, Indonesia, on May 20, 2015

More than 430 migrants stranded at sea were brought ashore to safety by Indonesian fishermen

(SIMPANG TIGA, Indonesia) — A flotilla of Indonesian fishermen rescued more than 430 migrants who were stranded at sea and brought them ashore to safety Wednesday, the latest victims of a humanitarian crisis confronting Southeast Asia. Hoping to find a solution, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia held an emergency meeting to address the plight of the migrants who are fleeing persecution in Burma and poverty in Bangladesh.

The migrants were rescued early Wednesday by more than a dozen fishermen’s boats, said Herman Sulaiman, from East Aceh district’s Search and Rescue Agency.

It was unclear if the migrants were on one boat or had come from several, but an initial batch of 102 people were the first brought to shore in the village of Simpang Tiga in Indonesia’s eastern Aceh province, Sulaiman and other rescuers said.

“They were suffering from dehydration, they are weak and starving,” Khairul Nove, head of Langsa Search and Rescue Agency in Aceh province. Among the 102 passengers were 26 women and 31 children, he said.

One of the migrants, Ubaydul Haque, 30, said the ship’s engine had failed and the captain fled, and that they were at sea for four months before Indonesian fishermen found them.

“We ran out of food, we wanted to enter Malaysia but we were not allowed,” he said.

One of the fishermen who led the rescue was 40-year-old Razali Puteh. He said he spotted a green wooden trawler crammed with people who were screaming, waving their hands and clothes at him to get his attention.

As he neared the trawler, people aboard began jumping into the water, trying to reach his boat. He said he asked them to stay on their boat, which apparently had no motor, and promised to return with help. He then returned with other fishing boats and brought the migrants to shore.

The rescue after Indonesia’s foreign minister said late Tuesday that the country had “given more than it should” to help hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded on boats by human traffickers.

The foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, was meeting Wednesday with his counterparts from Malaysia and Thailand in an emergency meeting called to discuss how to solve the migrant problem. Representatives from the U.N. refugee agency and the International Office for Migration were also expected to attend the meeting.

“This irregular migration is not the problem of one or two nations. This is a regional problem which also happens in other places. This is also a global problem,” Marsudi told reporters after a Cabinet meeting at the presidential palace.

Marsudi said Indonesia has sheltered 1,346 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who washed onto Aceh and North Sumatra provinces last week. The first batch came on May 10 with 558 people on a boat, and the second with 807 on three boats landed on Friday. Even before the crisis, nearly 12,000 migrants were being sheltered in Indonesia awaiting resettlement, she said, with most of those Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Burma. No more than 500 of those migrants are resettled in third countries each year, she said.

“Indonesia has given more than it should do as a non-member-state of the Refugee Convention of 1951,” she said.

The crisis emerged this month as governments in the region began cracking down on human trafficking. Some captains of trafficking boats abandoned their vessels — and hundreds of migrants — at sea. About 3,000 of the migrants have reached land in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, but all three countries have pushed some ships away. Aid groups estimate that thousands more migrants — who fled persecution in Burma and poverty in Bangladesh — are stranded in the Andaman Sea.

Burma’s cooperation is seen as vital to solving the crisis, but its government has already cast doubt on whether it will attend a conference to be hosted by Thailand on May 29 that is to include 15 Asian nations affected by the emergency.

Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.

TIME Nepal

Rohingya Say Quake-Ravaged Nepal Is Better Than Life at Home or Death at Sea

Hassan Hassan, left, and other Rohingya refugees on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal
Sabrina Toppa for TIME Hassan Hassan, left, with fellow Rohingya refugees on the outskirts of Kathmandu in July 2014

“In Burma, just being Muslim is like a crime”

After last Tuesday’s magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck Nepal, the fear of aftershocks prompted Hassan Hassan to sleep on the street. The temblor sliced off his door, shattered his windows, and cracked the walls of the ramshackle dwelling he shared with almost 30 other refugees on Kathmandu’s outskirts.

Hassan is an ethnic Rohingya Muslim from western Burma, a country now officially known as Myanmar. Along with tens of thousands of Rohingyas, the 22-year-old fled recent pogroms initiated by his homeland’s Buddhist majority in search of a better life elsewhere.

But while most Rohingya escape on rickety boats, facing possible extortion or execution in Thai trafficking camps en route to safety, Hassan instead trundled overland more than 100 km into the snow-capped Himalayas.

And despite the wanton devastation, half-million homes flattened and at least 8,500 lives lost, the recent twin quakes and numerous aftershocks have not stopped Hassan from counting his blessings.

“I am lucky,” he tells TIME. “If I had gone to Thailand, maybe I also would’ve died.”

Out of Nepal’s total 37,000 refugees, some 120 are Burmese, of whom 70% are Rohingya, according to the local U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) office. While the 21,500 camp-based Bhutanese are recognized as legitimate refugees, “urban refugees” like the Rohingya are officially deemed illegal migrants.

The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim group of 1.3 million that mainly live in Burma’s westernmost Arakan state, and are dubbed “one of the world’s most persecuted peoples” by the U.N. The Burmese government refuses to grant them citizenship and claims they are in fact interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh, even though many have lived in the country for generations. Bangladesh similarly shuns them as non-citizens.

Rohingya in Burma face restrictions on travel, education, marriage and land ownership. However, when politically expedient to the military-dominated government, Rohingyas have occasionally been allowed to vote.

“Many of them have been killed,” says Silvia di Gaetano, a Burma researcher at the Rights in Exile Programme. “Those who remain suffer malnutrition and starvation; severe physical and mental illness; and above all discrimination and persecution.”

Confined to squalid displacement camps, many Rohingya have fled east, potentially to die in the sea on the way to Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia. Now, however, these nations have started turning the boats away. And in recent weeks, mass graves have been uncovered in the thick jungle where Thailand tapers into Malaysia, belonging to Rohingya who fell prey to human traffickers that demand exorbitant ransoms to set them free. Those without wealthy connections are slain as a warning to others.

Activists have raised alarm that the Andaman Sea’s transformation into a “floating graveyard” is imminent, as the world witnesses a startling uptick in Rohingya’s perilous cross-border journeys. The U.N. reports that in this year alone, these voyages have nearly doubled, with almost 25,000 people estimated to attempt the journey, and 300 deaths already projected from unsuccessfully charting it.

As this humanitarian crisis deepens, most Rohingya in Nepal have expressed gratitude for the nation’s willingness to take them in and donate tents and critical relief supplies, despite recent quake-related hardships.

“For Rohingya, Nepal is still better than Burma,” says 30-year-old Zafir Miya, who also traversed South Asia — from Burma through Bangladesh and India to Nepal — in order to find a safe haven.

Hassan, who believes he is Nepal’s first Rohingya refugee, arrived in August 2012 — by mistake. “When I went from Bangladesh to India, the currency changed, so I knew I was in a different country,” he recalls. “But when I entered Nepal, they were still using Indian currency.”

Hassan did not realize Kathmandu was the capital of Nepal, a distinct country. Growing up in the Maungdaw district of Arakan state, Hassan says he lacked access to radio, television — Burma banned Rohingya-language broadcasts in 1965 — or even a SIM card, which before recent reforms would cost over $2,000.

When Hassan made his way to Kathmandu, he first scoured the city’s jails for the familiar faces of his missing kin, as many urban refugees are rounded up by police for illegal stays.

“Most [refugees] have been overstaying in Nepal for years,” says UNHCR Nepal spokesperson Deepesh Das Shrestha. The refugees are subject to a $5 per day overstay fine, possibly accumulating thousands of dollars in debt they cannot pay, because they are not allowed to work.

Without labor privileges in Nepal, most Rohingya are forced to stay idle, surviving on a UNHCR stipend of slightly more than $42 per month. For Hassan, this means his memory is awash with details of family he has not seen since before the 2012 Arakan state riots. He stays awake thinking of his mother Hafiza Begum, 43, whose towering stature distinguishes her from most Rohingya women. Hassan’s black-bearded father of 6 ft. 5 in., Mohammad Amin, 50, is marked by a 1.5-in. scar above his nose. All members of his family, except his 4-ft. 8-in. sister Rubina Aziz, are taller than the average Burmese citizens, including his four brothers: Emrun Faroque, Mojibur Rahman, Mahfujur Rahman and Tareq Aziz.

“If they are in Burma, they are dead,” says Hassan. “But if they escaped, there is a chance I can find them.”

According to UNHCR Nepal, nearly 60% of Nepal’s refugees from Burma are single men searching for family members. When communal riots first erupted in Arakan, Hassan was working in Bangladesh as a seasonal laborer, but planned to return home to observe the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

But when he did, Hassan found an empty home amid a forsaken desert of torched houses. A neighbor said his relatives might have fled to Bangladesh during the violence, so Hassan left on a fisherman’s boat under the cover of night to examine Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazaar.

Finding no answers there, Hassan had few options but to follow rumors that his family might have pushed on into India. After searching fruitlessly in Darjeeling and West Bengal, Hassan went to Nepal.

For all its challenges, Nepal pales in comparison to stories Hassan says he hears from those trapped in Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. And Hassan, like the majority of Rohingya, has found a sense of community with Nepal’s minority Muslim community, which accounts for a mere 4% of the population of 30 million.

“In Nepal, they don’t look at the difference between a Hindu or Muslim,” Miya tells TIME.

“In Burma, just being Muslim is like a crime,” Hassan adds.

Yet the nagging question of missing relatives remains. Nepal is a transit point, a temporary shelter before the Rohingya weather the next storm. UNHCR has set up psychosocial counseling for refugees to alleviate earthquake-related anxiety, but the larger problem remains: How does a Rohingya refugee build a life between one location and the next? How does he track down loved ones without papers — lacking any state recognition — that remain in perennial flight, floating in seas, trundling across borders, always fleeing one threat only to face another?

In spite of its seismological perils, Nepal affords the Rohingya an opportunity to carve out a life freer than Southeast Asia, and many hope to bring kin — if they ever find them — to also settle in Kathmandu.

Though far from perfect, quake-ravaged Nepal may offer the best hope to a community whose statelessness remains a source of horrific vulnerability.

“This is the situation of the Rohingya,” says Hassan. “The person who is not a citizen anywhere has no limit to the punishment he can suffer.”

TIME indonesia

Up to 6,000 Rohingya, Bangladeshi Migrants Stranded At Sea

Illegal immigrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh arrive at the Langkawi police station's multi purpose hall in Langkawi, Malaysia on May 11, 2015
Hamzah Osman—AP Illegal immigrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh arrive at the Langkawi police station's multi purpose hall in Langkawi, Malaysia on May 11, 2015

They remain trapped in crowded, wooden boats without food or clean water

(JAKARTA) — Hundreds of migrants abandoned at sea by smugglers in Southeast Asia have reached land and relative safety in the past two days. But an estimated 6,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Burma remain trapped in crowded, wooden boats, migrant officials and activists said. With food and clean water running low, some could be in grave danger.

One vessel that reached Indonesian waters early Monday, was stopped by the Navy and given food, water and directions to Malaysia.

Worried that boats will start washing to shore with dead bodies, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States and several other foreign governments and international organizations have held emergency meetings, but participants say there are no immediate plans to search for vessels in the busy Malacca Strait.

One of the concerns is what to do with the Rohingya if a rescue is launched. The minority group is denied citizenship in Burma, and other countries have long worried that opening their doors to a few would result in an unstemmable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.

“These are people in desperate straits,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, calling on governments to band together to help those still stranded at sea, some for two months or longer. “Time is not on their side.”

The Rohingya, who are Muslim, have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Burma, which considers them illegal settlers from Bangladesh even though their families have lived there for generations.

Attacks on members of the religious minority, numbering at around 1.3 million, have in the past three years left up to 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others from their homes. They now live under apartheid-like conditions in crowded camps just outside the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe, where they have little access to school or adequate health care.

The conditions at home — and lack of job opportunities — have sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people since the Vietnam War.

Chris Lewa, director of the non-profit Arakan Project, which has been monitoring boat departures and arrivals for more than a decade, estimates more than 100,000 men, women and children have boarded ships since mid-2012.

Most are trying to reach Malaysia, but recent regional crackdowns on human trafficking networks have sent brokers and agents into hiding, making it impossible for migrants to disembark — in some cases even after family members have paid $2,000 or more for their release, she said.

Lewa believes up to 6,000 Rohingya and Bangaldeshis are still on small and large boats in the Malacca Strait and nearby international waters.

Tightly confined, and with limited access to food and clean water, their health is deteriorating, she said, adding that dozens of deaths have been reported.

“I’m very concerned about smugglers abandoning boatloads at sea,” said Lewa.

In the last two days, 1,600 Rohingya have washed to shore in two Southeast Asian countries.

After four boats carrying nearly 600 people successfully landed in western Indonesia, with some migrants jumping into the water and swimming, a fifth carrying hundreds more was turned away early Monday.

Indonesia’s Navy spokesman, First Adm. Manahan Simorangkir , said they were trying to go to Malaysia but got thrown off course.

“We didn’t intend to prevent them from entering our territory, but because their destination country was not Indonesia, we asked them to continue to the country where they actually want to go,” he said.

Those who made it to shore aboard the other boats on Sunday were taken to a sports stadium in Lhoksukon, the capital of North Aceh District, to be cared for and questioned, said Lt. Col. Achmadi, chief of police in the area, who uses only one name.

Some were getting medical attention.

“We had nothing to eat,” said Rashid Ahmed, a 43-year-old Rohingya man who was on one of the boats. He said he left Burma’s troubled state of Rakhine with his eldest son three months ago.

A Bangladeshi man, Mohamed Malik, said he felt uncertain about being stranded in Aceh, but also relieved. “Relieved to be here because we receive food, medicine. It’s altogether a relief,” the man said.

Police also found a big wooden ship late Sunday night trapped in the sand in shallow waters at a beach of Langkawi, an island off Malaysia, and have since located 865 men, 101 women and 52 children, said Jamil Ahmed, the area’s deputy police chief. He added many appeared weak and thin and that at least two other boats have not been found.

“We believe there may be more boats coming,” Jamil said.

Thailand has long been considered a regional hub for human traffickers.

The tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities began tightening security on land — a move apparently aimed at appeasing the U.S. government as it prepares to release its annual Trafficking in Persons report next month. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.

Rohingya packing into ships in the Bay of Bengal have been joined in growing numbers by Bangladeshis fleeing poverty and hoping to find a better life elsewhere.

Up until recently, their first stop was Thailand, where they were held in open pens in jungle camps as brokers collected “ransoms” from relatives. Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia or other countries. Those who couldn’t were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.

Since May 1, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, the apparent victims of smuggling rings, they say.

Thai authorities have since arrested dozens of people, including a powerful mayor and a man named Soe Naing, otherwise known as Anwar, who was accused of being one of the trafficking kingpins in southern Thailand. More than 50 police officers are also under investigation.

Spooked by the arrests, smugglers are abandoning ships, sometimes disappearing in speedboats, with rudimentary instructions to passengers as to which way to go.

Vivian Tan, the U.N. refugee agency’s regional press officer in Bangkok, Thailand said there is real sense of urgency from the international community.

“At this point, I’m not sure what the concrete next steps are or should be,” she said of a string of meetings with diplomats and international organizations. “But there doesn’t seem to be a clear mechanism in this region for responding to something like this.”

McDowell reported from Yangon, Burma; Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Ali Kotarumalos and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

TIME myanmar

Boats With Over 500 Rohingya From Myanmar Land in Indonesia

Ethnic Rohingya children whose boats were washed ashore wait to be evacuated to a temporary shelter in Seunuddon, Aceh province, Indonesia
S. Yulinnas—AP Ethnic Rohingya children whose boats were washed ashore wait to be evacuated to a temporary shelter in Seunuddon, Aceh province, Indonesia, on May 10, 2015.

They warned that thousands more are believed to be stranded at sea

(JAKARTA, Indonesia) — Boats carrying more than 500 members of Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim community washed ashore in western Indonesia on Sunday, with some people in need of medical attention, officials and a nonprofit organization said. They warned that thousands more are believed to be stranded at sea.

Steve Hamilton, deputy chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, said his teams were racing to the Aceh province sub-district of Seunuddon, where the boats landed.

Of the four boats found, three had apparently been abandoned by the smugglers and the other ran out of fuel, he said.

Most of those on the boats were Rohingya, but there were also some Bangladeshis on board, Hamilton said.

“We had nothing to eat,” said Rashid Ahmed, a 43-year-old Rohingya man who was on one of the boats. He said he left Myanmar’s troubled state of Rakhine with his eldest son three months ago.

“There were about 20 children on our boat — they were so hungry,” he said, crying as he spoke to The Associated Press by phone. “All we could do was pray.”

The Rohingya have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar.

Attacks on the religious minority by Buddhist mobs in the last three years have sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people since the Vietnam War, sending 100,000 people fleeing, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade.

An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 Rohingya are now being held in large ships in the Malacca Straits and nearby international waters, she said, adding that crackdowns on trafficking syndicates in Thailand and Malaysia have prevented brokers from bringing them to land.

That has added to a spiraling crisis, with some stranded at sea for more than two months.

Tightly confined, and with limited access to food and clean water, their health is inevitably deteriorating, Lewa said, adding that dozens of deaths have been reported in recent months.

Thailand has long been considered a transit point for human traffickers across the region.

The tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities started cracking down on smuggling networks on land — a move apparently aimed at appeasing the U.S. government as it prepares to release its annual Trafficking in Persons report next month. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.

In the past, Rohingya and Bangladeshis packed into ships in the Bay of Bengal.

Their first stop was almost always Thailand, where they were held in open pens in jungle camps as brokers collected “ransoms” of $2,000 or more from family and friends. Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia or other countries.

Those who couldn’t were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.

Since May 1, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, the apparent victims, they say, of smuggling rings.

Indonesian authorities said the migrants who arrived in Aceh early Sunday were taken to a police station and a sports stadium, where they were being given care.

Risky Hidayat, from Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, said some of the migrants mentioned that there was another boat with an unspecified number of people on it still at sea in the same area.

One of the Rohingya who arrived Sunday, Muhammad Juned, told the AP that he left Myanmar two months ago, hoping to go to Malaysia.

“We just wanted to leave because the situation in Myanmar is no longer conducive for us to stay,” he said.

___

McDowell reported from Yangon, Myanmar. Associated Press writer Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

TIME Thailand

Jungle Graves in Thailand Spotlight the Plight of the World’s Displaced Peoples

Rescue workers inspect a mass grave at an abandoned camp in a jungle in Thailand's southern Songkhla province
Surapan Boonthamon—Reuters Rescue workers inspect a mass grave at an abandoned camp in a jungle in Thailand's southern Songkhla province on May 5, 2015

Some 30,000 people fled their homes each day in 2014. Among them were many Rohingya

Just a stone’s throw from where Western tourists sip cocktails and bronze themselves on beaches in Thailand’s southern state of Songkhla, a macabre discovery has been made: skeletons buried in the jungle.

At least 26 of the human remains are believed to be those of Rohingya Muslims. They were murdered, it is assumed, by people smugglers after fleeing pogroms in western Burma (now officially known as Myanmar) for a new life in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

While thousands of members of this much persecuted community successfully make the perilous voyage on rickety boats, hundreds die en route and many more are held captive in jungle camps, often with the collusion of local law enforcement, until their friends or relatives cough up enough cash to buy their freedom.

As with the 18 mutilated bodies that washed up on Malaysia’s historic port island of Penang late last year, it seems likely that those recently exhumed didn’t have sufficiently affluent connections.

“Those who can pay the money are released within a few days, those who cannot pay must stay and every day they are beaten and traumatized,” Abdul Hamid, president of the Rohingya Society of Malaysia, told TIME in Kuala Lumpur last month. “Witnesses from the camps say that every week there are three or four people who die from the torture.”

The recent discovery comes as a new report reveals that a record-breaking 38 million people around the world today have been displaced within their own countries by conflict or violence. The number is the equivalent to the combined populations of London, New York City and Beijing, and signals “our complete failure to protect innocent civilians,” says Jan Egeland, secretary general at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Among them are Burma’s 1.3 million Rohingya, described by the U.N. as “virtually friendless.” They are denied citizenship in both Burma and neighboring Bangladesh and consequently struggle on both sides of this shared frontier, many in squalid displacement camps, where food, shelter and medical care are in scandalously short supply.

Their plight has worsened since dozens were killed and thousands of homes destroyed in sectarian violence unleashed by Burma’s Buddhist majority, which first erupted in October 2012.

But the Rohingya’s problems do not end even if they are able to leave Burma. The supposedly lucky 100,000 who have reached Malaysia face a difficult time on arrival. Only around 45,000 have UNHCR cards, as registration has been closed for over six months to all but newborn babies or dependents of existing refugees and newly arrived children. They receive no government handouts nor are they allowed to work, and so must make do with irregular construction jobs, where they are liable to further exploitation.

While state-sponsored violence is an aggravating factor in the plight of the Rohingya, their real curse is a lack of citizenship and thus constitutional protection in the land of their birth. Burma may have shrugged off a half-century of brutal junta rule, but the military still maintains tight control, and the Rohingya remain pawns of a slew of generals, who see inculcating antipathy towards the Rohingya minority — they are portrayed as Bangladeshi interlopers — as their best hope of retaining power in elections slated for October.

Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the opposition National League for Democracy party, refuses to unequivocally speak up for the Rohingya, calling their plight an “immigration matter,” despite that fact that many Rohingya families have histories in Burma for longer or as long as hers.

And so, as the U.S. re-engages with the Burmese government, and hails this impoverished nation’s significant strides toward democracy, those anonymous jungle graves are a grim reminder of the formidable challenges that remain, as well as of the vulnerability of all those forced from their homes.

TIME russia

At Least 56 Dead as Trawler Sinks Off Eastern Coast of Russia

The vessel is believed to have hit ice

A Russian trawler capsized in the waters just off the country’s Kamchatka peninsula on Thursday, leaving at least 56 dead, AP reports.

A total of 63 people from the Dalniy Vostok have been rescued by other fishing vessels, Russian news agency TASS reported.

Of the 132 on board, 78 were Russian nationals, while the rest were from Myanmar, Ukraine, Lithuania and Vanuatu.

A source from the regional emergencies ministry told TASS that the trawler might have hit drifting ice in the Sea of Okhotsk where it sank, around 150 miles south of the city of Magadan.

“The ship did not send a distress signal,” the source said.

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