There are more than 50 million displaced people in the world today, the most since the end of World War II. Yet few of them have survived the kind of horrific journey that 12-year-old Atahurahman endured.
For 3½ months, he drifted across the Bay of Bengal, which separates India and Southeast Asia, to the Andaman Sea on what can only be described as a modern-day slave ship. The creaking vessel’s hold was retrofitted by human smugglers to carry more than 400 people packed so tightly together, they often sat with their arms cradling their bent knees. Twice-daily meals were limited to a handful of gruel and a few gulps of water. A couple of months into the trip, the captain and other gun-wielding traffickers abandoned ship, leaving the passengers to their fates. Food–even grains of uncooked rice–ran out.
Then began what one International Organization for Migration official described as “maritime ping-pong with human life.” Eager to make landfall in Malaysia, the migrants–a mix of ethnic Rohingya from Burma escaping persecution and Bangladeshis fleeing poverty–headed toward the jungle-choked coastline. But the Malaysian maritime force, under government orders to refuse such boats shelter, pushed the vessel north toward Thailand.
The Thai authorities fixed the boat’s engine and tossed some food and water to the passengers, who by this point were drinking their own urine. But they then towed the boat back to international waters, wanting nothing to do with the despondent human cargo. The cycle repeated itself: back to Malaysia, back to Thailand, back to Malaysia. Eventually an Indonesian helicopter hovered overhead, though that country’s navy initially blocked the boat as well. Three countries were rejecting a trawler filled with starving, dehydrated people, a floating human-rights tragedy.
On May 20, the vessel drifted toward Aceh, an Indonesian province at the northwestern tip of the island of Sumatra. There local fishermen finally guided the passengers to safety. A day after he had made landfall, Atahurahman, who is a Rohingya, walked dazed through a temporary camp set up by Acehnese officials. Women and children huddled in an abandoned paper plant, their occasional wails piercing the air. Men sprawled under tents. Medical staff tried to revive the sick, including toddlers with the swollen bellies of prolonged malnutrition. At least 10 others died en route and were thrown overboard, say those who survived the ordeal. “We thought we would die in the sea,” says Atahurahman.
If all the uprooted individuals like Atahurahman around the world were to form their own country, they would make up the world’s 29th most populous nation, as big as South Korea. The recent increase in refugees is driven by conflict, especially in Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, as well as by economic crisis. Already about 1,800 African and Middle Eastern migrants have perished in the Mediterranean this year, as overloaded boats sank before reaching Europe.
Yet of all the world’s desperate migrants, the Rohingya deserve special sympathy. A Muslim ethnic minority that lives in the west of Burma, known officially as Myanmar, the Rohingya are not simply poor and persecuted by members of the country’s Buddhist majority. They also lack the most fundamental measure of identity: citizenship. About 140,000 Rohingya have been herded by the government into fetid, disease-ridden camps since sectarian tensions with local Buddhists erupted in 2012. That violence, which disproportionately affected the Rohingya, culminated in what Human Rights Watch deemed “ethnic cleansing.” Visiting one such ghetto, a U.N. humanitarian-affairs official said she witnessed a level of suffering “I have personally never seen before.”
At least 200,000 Rohingya have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh, a country even poorer than Burma. The Burmese government maintains that the Rohingya aren’t Burmese at all because they are recently arrived illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, “Bengalis” who have flooded across the border. Yet many Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations and used to hold Burmese citizenship before laws changed in 1982. Unable to access normal schools and hospitals because of their official statelessness, Rohingya are also limited in whom they can marry and how many children they can bear. While international advocates as august as the Dalai Lama have rallied to their cause, Burma’s own human-rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and democratic opposition leader, has declined to strenuously defend them. “The Rohingya have been discriminated against, significantly, and that’s part of the reason they are fleeing,” U.S. President Barack Obama told a group of Southeast Asian students at the White House on June 1.
It’s little wonder then that the Rohingya risk the journey to Muslim-majority Malaysia to endure menial jobs unwanted by locals. (Though cases of rape, torture and execution along the way have been recorded, it’s difficult to corroborate every story each Rohingya tells.) The route from western Burma’s Rakhine (or Arakan) state has taken them aboard rickety boats, often owned by Thais, to the Andaman Sea, then overland through the forests of Thailand into Malaysia. Often the price agreed upon back in Burma (or in refugee settlements in Bangladesh, another point of departure for migrants) changes en route, and the Rohingya, along with an increasing number of Bangladeshis, are imprisoned in camps until family members back home or in Malaysia pay up.
The crisis has spawned a new generation of homeless boat people, the largest in Asia since the end of the Vietnam War sent an estimated 800,000 fleeing communism by sea. Back then, the refugees were housed in camps across Southeast Asia and eventually made their way to new lives as far away as Europe and the U.S. From 2014 through early 2015, 88,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis took to the sea, according to the U.N., with thousands perishing along the way. Some, after paying ransom to the traffickers, have returned to the camps and homes they once fled or have been picked up by the Burmese navy. “These trafficking syndicates have operated for years,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, a human-rights-focused NGO based in Bangkok. “But the current scale of death and abuse is unprecedented.”
Asia’s boat crisis has highlighted the powerlessness–or, more accurately, the deliberate frailty–of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the region’s pale version of the E.U. While Southeast Asia is gaining economic muscle–the region is the world’s fifth largest economy–its political strength remains stunted. For all the criticism of the E.U.’s failures to save migrants in the Mediterranean, at least Europe has a policy. Hiding behind a commitment to noninterference in its 10 members’ domestic affairs, ASEAN has abdicated responsibility for protecting its most vulnerable residents.
Until May 20, Malaysia and Indonesia both refused official sanctuary to the boats, while Thailand is still shying away from a full welcome. A May 29 summit in Thailand on the boat crisis produced only weak statements–nothing specific about the Burmese authorities’ creating the conditions that have propelled the Rohingya to flee. Indeed, because the Burmese government, which has been applauded for initiating political and economic reform, refuses to acknowledge that such an ethnicity exists, the word Rohingya was excluded from the conference’s paperwork. “The international community has been shameful in its silence,” says Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia. “A slow genocide is happening, and the world looks away.”
Heart of Darkness
As reports by human-rights organizations have piled up, documenting the mistreatment of vulnerable migrants, Thailand and Malaysia have finally begun cracking down on the human-smuggling network that moves and often abuses them. But the results have been grim. In May, Thai authorities uncovered more than 30 migrants’ bodies near the Malaysian border. During another operation last month near the border with Thailand, Malaysian police discovered 139 graves strewn across the limestone hills. The remnants of death were everywhere: a stretcher made of branches used to carry bodies, reams of white cloth used to wrap the deceased in Muslim tradition and empty boxes of 9-mm bullets. Forensic specialists are still exhuming bodies, so the final death toll is not yet known. But the remains are believed to be those of Rohingya and Bangladeshis who perished in jungle camps where they were held hostage while smugglers awaited further payment.
“I am not surprised by the presence of smuggling syndicates,” Malaysian national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar told Time while visiting a makeshift police station near the hills riddled with graves. “But the depth of the cruelty, the torture, all this death–that has shocked me.” Some locals, though, are not surprised. One resident, who refused to give his name because of the sensitive nature of human trafficking, recalled seeing emaciated foreigners stumbling down the road near the entrance to a national park. They were wearing sarongs, the women’s heads covered by the kind of loose veils normally worn by Muslims in western Burma and Bangladesh. “We did nothing,” the villager says. “God help us for looking away.”
Shanu Binti Abdul Hussain says she, her three children and her brother-in-law–all Rohingya from western Burma–were imprisoned in a camp on the Thai side of the border for more than a month late last year. They were released only when her husband Mohamed Rafiq, who was already working in Malaysia’s Penang state, was able to meet a $4,150 ransom. “I thought, What if the money was too late?” he recalls. “What if one of my children has died?” The family now shares a house with five others in Penang, each household limited to a single room. Mohamed Rahman, the eldest son, 12, works bagging rice and onions for a grocer for $6 a day. He does not go to school.
It’s hard to imagine that human traffickers could have operated in border areas for so many years without official complicity. In May the mayor and deputy mayor of the Thai border town of Padang Besar were arrested in connection with the trade; on June 3 a senior Thai army officer surrendered to face charges linked to alleged human trafficking. As part of their crackdown, Malaysian police have detained two policemen. A Bangladeshi report published in local newspapers last month accused 24 police officers in Cox’s Bazar, the coastal area from which smugglers’ boats often launch, of complicity in trafficking. Shaidah, a Rohingya whose neighborhood in Burma was razed in 2012, spent three months living in a tent in a 200-person jungle camp in Thailand. When she trekked into Malaysia, she remembers uniformed men hustling her across the border.
Despite the life-and-death risks, Asia’s human-trafficking trade will continue for the same reason illegal migration is on the rise globally–the market is simply too lucrative, and migrants are too desperate. Some aren’t even going voluntarily–Atahurahman and nine other boys on the ship that landed in Aceh on May 20 say they were kidnapped by traffickers trying to maximize profits by filling their boats before they set sail, collecting ransom during the journey.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheik Hasina, has dismissed migrants from her country as “mentally sick.” The blame seems misplaced. Bangladeshi police say 300 or so human traffickers nationwide prey on unemployed youth and schoolboys by promising free passage to Southeast Asia, only to hold them for ransom later on. Besides, about 40% of Bangladeshis live on less than $1.25 a day. Is it really crazy to crave a better life abroad? The Rohingya have it even worse, although the U.S. has promised to resettle some refugees, as have the Philippines and, curiously, the tiny West African country of Gambia, whose citizens are themselves braving Mediterranean voyages to reach Europe.
Complicating the fate of the refugees is the difficulty of documenting exactly what has happened to them. Many of the Rohingya who made it to Aceh, after months at sea, told the same story to TIME about why they left Burma: villages burned, women raped, brothers or nephews or uncles or fathers killed. While the mistreatment of the Rohingya in Burma is well established, the sameness in their narratives is hard to evaluate. Did atrocities committed against their families force them onto the traffickers’ boats? Or were they coached to give similar stories in order to better their chances of getting refugee status–something that is known to happen?
At one of the Aceh camps, Atahurahman tells, unblinkingly, how his father was shot by Burmese police while they were confined to a camp. Yet the boy’s uncle, who lives in Malaysia, maintains that Atahurahman’s father died of heart disease after not being able to get to the hospital from the Rohingya ghetto. Which is the truth? Many of the Rohingya have no idea what day they left Burma or, indeed, what day it is now. They are illiterate and traumatized. After spending years wasting away in some of the world’s most squalid conditions, they face uncertain futures in temporary camps granted by foreign governments. Yet they had the strength to cross an ocean in search of a new life.
Atahurahman, though, has another ambition. “I want to see my mother again,” he says, blinking back tears. “I miss her very much.”
–WITH REPORTING BY MUKTITA SUHARTONO/ACEH, INDONESIA, AND FARID HOSSAIN/DHAKA, BANGLADESHN
This appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of TIME.