A Tale of Two Sisters: Myanmar Exodus Haunts Rohingya in Malaysia

Refugees International (RI) was just on the ground in Malaysia exploring conditions for several Rohingya communities who are among the tens of thousands who have fled persecution in Myanmar in recent years. Their journeys were often more horrific than the conditions from which they fled and their lives in Malaysia are only better in relative terms. The truth of this reality is starkly illuminated in the story of two sisters, Amina and Khadija.*

Their journeys were often more horrific than the conditions from which they fled and their lives in Malaysia are only better in relative terms. 

At first glance, 13-year-old Amina appears shy, but when she begins to speak about her journey to Malaysia, her voice projects a confidence well beyond her years. Fears of violence and her desire for an education -- an unattainable luxury for Rohingya in Myanmar -- drove Amina to take what would prove to be a harrowing journey. As the RI team sat down to talk with her, Amina described her treacherous voyage to Malaysia, starting with her transfer six times from boat to boat, until being boarded onto a larger ship crowded with 600 passengers. (It was common for traffickers and “agents” to wait until a sufficient number of Rohingya and other refugees and migrants have been amassed before loading them onto a larger boat for the final journey across the Andaman Sea.) She brought her arms in tight and leaned uncomfortably to the side to show the position she was forced to hold for weeks while confined to cramped conditions below deck. She spoke of how the human traffickers abandoned the ship and its human cargo, leaving them to float for days without water. She told of fishermen finding them, giving them food, water, and fuel, and then sending them off again on their way.  She spoke of finally reaching Langkawi, an island off the coast of Malaysia, and of being immediately detained by Malaysian authorities. Amina’s story is just one of thousands experienced by the Rohingya abandoned at sea in the May 2015 boat crisis.

Amina’s older sister Khadija*, age 23, made a similar journey, at least in part, a year earlier. Khadija recalled her own harrowing journey to Malaysia, during which two people on the boat were so driven by hunger that they jumped into the sea to end their suffering. Upon reaching Thailand, the traffickers marched Khadija into the jungle. There she spent days in a camp as human traffickers had her call her family to demand around $1,000 or else they would kill her. To make their demands more urgent and menacing, the traffickers beat many of the Rohingya as they spoke to their relatives and pleaded for additional funds. (A year later, similar camps would be discovered with the remains of over 200 dead bodies.) Fortunately for Khadija, her family was able to pay the traffickers. She was released from the camp, but was left to wander into the hands of Malaysian authorities and was thrown into a mass detention center.

Amina and Khadija’s stories come together once again, as both experienced the appalling conditions of detention in Malaysia, albeit a year apart. Khadija spent 25 days in in a Malaysian detention center before the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, was able to intervene and secure her release. Amina, just 12 years old at the time and alone, would spend more than a year in detention, at times in conditions so crowded that she and her fellow detainees had to take turns lying down to sleep. She received insufficient food and squatting behind a three-foot-high wall proved her only privacy when she needed to bathe or use the bathroom. She was denied any communication with her family or anyone outside, and her sister only found out that she was in Malaysia and in detention through word of mouth.

The international attention to the boat crisis and visits by UNHCR helped lead to an offer for Amina to resettle in the United States, making her one of an extremely small number to have the opportunity. However, Amina bravely told officials that she would only go if her sister could join her.

Finally, just two months ago and well over a year from the start of Amina’s journey, the two sisters were reunited. The joy of that reunification was still fresh as they shared their story with RI. When asked why she would allow her younger sister to undertake such a perilous journey, Khadija tells RI that she never told her family about the horrors of her journey as she didn’t want them to know what she had suffered, unaware that her younger sister would similarly be enticed into the harrowing journey in the hopes of a better life. 

While happy to be reunited, Amina and Khadija now face the harsh realities of life for Rohingya in Malaysia. The government does not recognize them as refugees, it merely tolerates their presence. Access to healthcare and employment are greatly limited and risks of exploitation high. Khadija’s husband has been without a job for close to a month and is often stopped by local police who demand a bribe in order to avoid being thrown into detention. Arrest and return to detention are an ever present risk for Rohingya, especially the thousands that do not possess UNHCR documents. And it is this fear and the unfamiliarity of a foreign land that prevent Amina from leaving their house, and afraid to venture outside. When she is bored, she says she just goes to lie down. And tragically, it is only now that she has arrived in Malaysia that she realizes that as in Myanmar, she will be denied education because she is Rohingya. 

The effects of the persecution in Myanmar that led Amina and Khadija to leave their country continue to haunt them, much like the journeys that brought them to Malaysia. As long as the root causes of that exodus remain unaddressed by the Myanmar government, and as long as the Malaysian government does not do more to protect the vulnerable, the tens of thousands of Rohingya now living there will have no choice but to continue to rely on their own communities to survive. As Amina and Khadija move on from their respective harrowing journeys, they can at least take solace in the realization that any trials ahead will be challenges they do not have to face alone.

* Names changed for protection purposes.