The terrifying voyage of Burma's boat people

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Next month thousands of young Burmese Muslims, persecuted in their own land, will attempt to voyage across the sea to a better life – but a sinister fate awaits them. John Carlin investigates

Here's a formula for making a killing in times of crisis. Go to the south-eastern tip of Bangladesh, on the border with Burma, and buy an old fishing boat. It'll cost 100,000 taka, or about £900. Then budget 450 pounds, for rice and drinking water, and maybe another £450 for bribes. Then head off and trawl for clients among the most destitute communities in Bangladesh – a country so densely populated country and so poor that for Britain to be on similar economic terms it would have to have a population of 200 million with an average income around four per cent of what a Briton's is today,

But the target market we are looking at here is several times more impoverished than that. We are talking about quite possibly the most neglected people in Asia, or anywhere else. They call themselves Rohingyas, a Muslim minority from Burma, 30,000 of whom have been so cruelly persecuted by their country's military junta, in large measure because of their religion, that they have chosen to flee over the border to live in a refugee camp that they themselves built, without the help of the United Nations or anybody else. It is on a little hillside that is so hot, cramped, stinking, hungry and disease-ridden that, by contrast, the neighbouring string of squalid Bangladeshi fishing villages feels like the Costa del Sol.

Of the 30,000 people living in the Kutupalong refugee camp, a third are children under 10. They laughed and horsed around when I visited them accompanied by a photographer and an aid worker. They would not have laughed had they had any sense of the possible destiny awaiting them, just around the corner. When the mothers get desperate, when no other possibility of survival exists, they sell their children off, usually to become slaves; sex slaves, if they are little girls.

But these are not the clients that the region's investors-in-people most are interested in. What they look for is young men, typically between 16 and 25 years old, who dare to dream of a future brighter than the best that Bangladesh has to offer them – which is to pedal day and night as rickshaw drivers, earning just enough crumbs to allow their bodies to keep pedalling the day and night after that.

For these young men, the promised land is Malaysia, an Asian Tiger of shimmering skyscrapers, vast bridges and smooth motorways that is 1,000 miles south of Bangladesh but felt – when I arrived there on a Malaysian airlines Airbus 330 – like another world, in another century. There is no Airbus option for the Rohingyas, who do not have passports, not being considered citizens in their own land.

This is where the fishing boats, the rice, drinking water and the bribes come in. The canny entrepreneur, who regards himself as a sort of travel agent, offers these ambitious young men a sea trip to Malaysia for a fee the equivalent of £180 a head. The boat, about 60ft long, would usually hold a dozen fishermen. But for this kind of voyage the aim is to carry up to 100 people. That means an income of £18,000 on an outlay of £1,800: a profit approaching 1,000 per cent.

One limitation of the business is that it is only feasible at year's end. December is the time to set sail, when the storms in south-east Asian waters abate, and the currents and the winds are favourable for Malaysia. As I write, boats are being bought and packages sold – as they were a year ago when more than 1,000 Rohingya refugees set off from the Bangladeshi coast.

I spoke separately to half a dozen of these sea-faring adventurers; the stories of three of them are recorded here. Storms, starvation, disease, thirst, beatings, jail was what befell them. At several steps along the way they lived with what seemed then the certain knowledge that they were to die slow and terrible deaths.

Another type of slow death was what they had fled from in Burma. The travellers' stories of life in their home country matched those I heard from a group of Rohingya elders at the Kutupalong camp, painting a picture that suggested images of the slave era in the Americas during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Rohingyas live in north-west Burma, in a state called Arakan, a name that sounds like a beautiful fairyland in a C.S. Lewis Narnia story, but in this case one ruled without respite by a regime almost as darkly impenetrable as North Korea's. Since its government refused to accept the results of the last democratic elections in 1990, Burma has been a country closed to foreign journalists. Talking to the Rohingyas, one can understand why. They are discriminated against because they are Muslims in a Buddhist country; because they tend to have darker skin than most Burmese (a senior Burmese diplomat described them recently as "dark brown" and "ugly as ogres"), and because of a complex history of resistance to central control (they sided with the British in the Second World War instead of the Japanese, whom the majority of Burmese favoured). They find themselves stateless slaves in the country where they were born. They cannot move from one village to another without permission from the local military authorities; they cannot marry or have children without permission; they are helpless to resist as their land is confiscated bit by bit and given to Buddhist settlers brought in from the cities; they are forced to work the land that has been stolen from them, without pay; they are forced to do all the menial labour that the military might require, from building roads to cutting grass; and they are not allowed to worship freely. After nightfall, when their religion demands that they go to the mosque and pray, they are not allowed to leave their homes. And there is a policy clearly aimed at the erosion of Islam in Arakan state: anyone who is caught performing any repairs on a mosque, from fixing a roof to painting a wall, is punished with jail and a fine.

"They tell us it is their country, not ours," said one of the Rohingya boat people I spoke to, a gentle, devoutly religious boy of 19 called Mohammed. The eldest of eight siblings, his father marked him out as the family's saviour. His his mission was to set off for Malaysia, find a job and send money back home. "My father was terribly sad but he said I was the only hope the family had."

Made aware, through a relative in Bangladesh, of the going rate for the trip to Malaysia, Mohammed's father sold two bullocks and half an acre of land for the equivalent of the £180 that the supposed ticket to paradise cost. The boy tramped over the mountains to Bangladesh where, before boarding a boat in December along with 82 other Rohingya men and boys – the youngest 12, the oldest 60, most about 18 – he made a call on his relative's mobile phone to his family. "I had a feeling that I was leaving my family forever, that I would never see them again."

Salim – thin, small, neat, reedy-voiced – is the second of the travellers in this story. Seventeen when he left Arakan last year, he has four brothers and four sisters. "My elder brothers were forced to cut the lawns of the soldiers, collect firewood for them, clean their houses. They were like slaves," he explained to me "I saw that my future was dark and I decided to leave and find another life." He made it to Bangladesh, found some human-smugglers, as he calls them, and contacted his family to tell them how much money he needed. "They sold their paddyfields: all the land they owned."

Moniur, older than the other two at 23, had left Arakan 10 years earlier and had worked as a rickshaw driver, one of thousands you see swarming the roads of south-eastern Bangladesh. He had the gaunt, grim-set face of all the rickshaw drivers, men forced to push the boundaries of the physically possible, with minimal food.

The three set off on separate boats along what was supposed to have been the same scheduled route: south down the Bay of Bengal to the Sea of Andaman, skirting the west coast of Thailand; then on to the Straits of Molucca, passing Indonesia to the west, before finally making landfall somewhere in the northern Malaysian province of Penang. The voyage was 1,500 kilometres long; the quantity of food provided and the conditions on the boats responded in each case to one simple purpose: maximising the traffickers' profits.

They were not shackled, they were there of their own will, but their plight recalled that of the Africans transported across the Atlantic on the slave-traders' ships. The measure of the despair driving them to seek better lives was that they did not flee for home on seeing and smelling the vessels they had been allotted. Take the case of Salim, crammed along with 107 others into the reeking hold of a fishing boat – the place the fish were usually stored before the boat headed for shore during the long years of the wooden vessel's working life. The men were packed in so tightly that they could not budge an inch. Some were seasick and vomited; all had to urinate and defecate, where they sat.

Mohammed, Salim and Moniur knew they were taking a gamble, but they had no idea just how loaded the dice were against them. On Mohammed's and Salim's boats, the food and water ran out after 10 days; on Moniur's, after eight. In each case they were still some 500 kilometres short of Malaysia, and for two days they sailed without anything to eat or drink. Reaching their destination ceased to have any significance; survival was all that mattered. "All we saw was water and more water", said Mohammed, "but none that we could drink."

Moniur's boat ran into some Thai fishermen, who gave them water but then handed them over to the Thai navy, who took them to shore and arrested them; Mohammed's and Salim's boats made it to shore in Thailand, but they and all their fellow passengers were immediately arrested. All of them were transported to a town called Ranong by road; in Moniur's case, crammed into a garbage truck. They had lost whatever minimal control they might have managed to retain over their lives.

Mohammed told his story vividly, giving free vent to his sorrow and despair; Moniur, older and toughened by the life of the urban rickshaw driver, had an extraordinary memory for detail, but remained stiffly detached, like a police detective describing a crime scene; Salim, the youngest of the three, was contained and precise, but struggled to maintain his poise during the more harrowing parts of his narrative. None of them, in the six hours I spent with them overall, ever smiled. What happened to them, happened to hundreds of other Rohingyas.

According to the only organisation in the world that takes a sustained interest in documenting the plight of the Rohingyas – a one-woman NGO called the Arakan Project run by a Belgian woman, Chris Lewa – at least 1,195 of the refugees left Bangladesh bound purportedly for Malaysia on at least 10 boats in December 2008. Of those, 859 are today accounted for; the rest, more than 300 people, are missing, presumed dead, from drowning, or starvation and thirst on the high seas. The stories of Mohammed, Moniur and Salim, whose survival was in each case providential, offer vivid insights into the probable circumstances of those who remain unaccounted for.

Moniur and Mohammed were taken by the Thai army from Ranong to Koh Sai Dang, which is also known as Red Sand Island – "a hill on the sea", as Moniur described it.

"What struck us first was the number of shoes we saw lying on the beach – hundreds of them," said Mohammed. "Since they were the type that our people wear we feared the owners had been killed and that that would be our fate too."

The Thai military kept the Rohingya men on the island for 15 days, routinely beating them. "There were many more of us than the soldiers, so it must have been to intimidate, to control," explained Mohammed. Then a military boat and a ferry arrived, and took them back to four of the the same boats they had come ashore in. "We found when we got on that they had taken out the engines. Then they connected the four boats with ropes and one of the military boats towed us all out to sea. They told us they were taking us to Malaysian waters. But after a day and half they cut the ropes and abandoned us, drifting in the high seas".

"It was then," continued Mohammed, "that we understood that the promise of Malaysia had been false and we all began to cry. The four boats were taken by the currents in different directions, until ours was alone. We were certain we would die." Moniur, on another of the four boats, had an identical tale to tell.

Their stories have been corroborated by Chris Lewa's exhaustive research, and the Thai government has even owned up. Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was forced to admit that in "some instances" such events had taken place. Though, as far as anybody knows, no official inquiry has taken place.

Should there be such an official investigation, the upshot would probably have to be charges of murder and attempted murder on a massive scale. There were 575 people on the four drifting boats. On Moniur's, the largest, there were 152. After 10 days of lacerating tropical sun and 10 nights of darkest despair, people began to die. "We had no food or water; 19 people died," said Moniur, in his staccato manner. "We threw the bodies overboard. All the rest of us could do was wait for our turn to die too."

Mohammed's boat was luckier, at first. It took just five days for rough seas to sweep them towards some Thai fishermen, who fed them and led them to shore, where the Thai military again arrested them, then handcuffed them, blindfolded and interrogated them. They had drifted far south, to near Bangkok, but were loaded onto lorries and then a military boat which delivered them once more to Red Sand Island.

He and 200 others ("lots of the people there had sores on their backs from sitting crammed on the boats") were kept on the island for a month. "Then they loaded us onto a big barge and towed us out to sea, this time with food – seven sacks of rice and two drums of water. But they took our engine out again," Mohammed said, "and after two days and one night, again, they cut us loose and left us.

"We drifted for 14 days. Many of us got sick, many lost consciousness. I had no doubts I would die. There was no hope of land or rescue. We had no energy even to talk any more." But then it rained, they gathered the water in the plastic sheeting, and hope returned. On the 16th day they saw land, and at dawn the next day they awoke to discover they were surrounded by fishing boats. They were not Thais this time. The fishermen took them ashore to their home, a place called Idi, in northern Indonesia.

Moniur meanwhile reached land after 14 days adrift. "We found water to drink, wild fruit to eat," he recalled, "and we walked, stumbling through the bush, from nightfall to dawn. We saw some markings on a tree, which told us, to our joy, that this was a deserted island. We kept walking, with new energy now, and found some villagers who gave us tea and bananas... This was India. The Andaman Islands." The former rickshaw driver spent the next nine months in an Indian detention centre.

Mohammed did make it to Malaysia, to Penang province, where I interviewed him. Following his rescue by Indonesian fishermen he awoke, after two days unconscious, in an Indonesian hospital bed. Then he met an Indonesian policeman who, instead of beating him, took him home and, together with his wife, nursed and fed him back to health. Two weeks later he moved to a refugee camp, where he stayed for six months.

Every Friday he was allowed out to visit the policeman and his family, until one day the policeman helped him realise his dream, giving him the money and the means to cross illegally, but safely ,through the Straits of Molucca into Malaysia.

Salim was not set adrift on an engineless boat. After spending 21 days in the immigration detention centre in Ranong in Thailand he was put on a fully-functioning boat that, he was told, would take him up the coast to Burma.

He was landed, instead, on the Thai coast and handed over by the Thai immigration authorities to Thai traffickers – one of numerous examples I came across during my interviews with Rohingyas, and confirmed as pattern by Lewa, of collusion between people-smugglers and Thai officials. "They packed 10 of us into a hidden compartment underneath a van and drove us to a rubber plantation," recalled Salim. "They took us to a long house there, where there were lots of other people like me, who had tried to get from Bangladesh to Malaysia. They asked us for the phone numbers of friends or relatives in Malaysia. They said that if we gave them the numbers they would phone and ask for the price of getting us over the border into Malaysia."

"I had no friends or relatives in Malaysia, and I said as much," Salim continued. "But they did not want to believe me. They beat me with a cane, every day for 10 days." At which point the traffickers conceded defeat. The frail boy, 18 years old now and hardly bigger than an average 13-year-old in Europe, had been the pride and hope of his family in Burma, but that was the extent of his worldly connections. So the traffickers put into action their 'Plan B': they delivered Salim and nine other Rohingyas to a Thai fishing harbour and handed them over to a trawler.

"At first I was happy. It was very hard work. Just three days off in the month. We left for sea at five in the afternoon and worked till 10 next morning, casting the nets, pulling in the fish, cleaning the nets, cleaning the boat. We slept from 10 in the morning till four in the afternoon."

He paid less than £1 a day for his expenses and he awaited eagerly his pay packet at the end of the month.But then he saw, when the end of the month came, that the Thai fishermen on the boat got paid and he did not; that they went off to shore to see their families but he was not allowed off the boat.

"When I asked for my wages I was told, 'No, you are not like the rest of the crew. Your wages are paid elsewhere'. They said I had been sold, that my boss took all my money. I asked who my boss was and they told me the name of the Thai trafficker who ran the rubber plantation with the Sikhs." What did he feel at that moment? "I suddenly felt the whole sky fall on my head: I could not move for a long time. They told me nothing more. I thought I was sold for the rest of my life. I believed I was sold forever. I cannot remember a day for the rest of the time I was there that I did not weep silently."

There was no prospect of escape, he said. "I heard stories of others like me who had been thrown overboard because they tried to get away." Nine months into his captivity on the boat, to his utter surprise, some people came in a van, employees of the trafficker who "owned" him and took him on a long journey over the border into Malaysia. "They are cruel people, they beat people, they buy and sell people, they are killers, but with me they were true to their word. My nine months of work had paid the money it would have cost to get me over the border if I had had relatives to pay."

It was a peculiar case of honour among thieves. They dropped him off at a mosque inside Malaysia's Penang province, where once it was revealed that for all the callousness in the world there is also kindness. Salim, whose life had been held to ransom, met an elderly man at the Malaysian mosque who took him under his wing. "He gave me a phone to call my family; he gave me some work to do, and paid me some wages, then he gave me some money to go on a bus south to Georgetown – a big city where I hoped to find steady work, which I soon did."

He succeeded where Moniur, older and tougher, failed. Back in Bangladesh where I interviewed Moniur just a month after his return from India, he allowed himself just one moment of weakness, when I asked him if he would contemplate setting sail for Malaysia again?

"Look," he said, "many times, many times I thought I would die. Many times. So, no. No, no. I will not try again. I will stay now and always in Bangladesh. Life is hard here, but it is life."

The Kutupalong refugee camp itself is life too. It is a pretty bright and cheery sort of life after you've emerged out of the dark places that Moniur, Mohammed and Salim descended into. Almost bright and cheery, if you hold your nose and shut out your eyes to the misery all around – to the open hillside gutters and the baking-hot shacks with mud floors and black plastic roofs – and if all you do is look at the smiles on the faces of the 10,000 children there.

They mob us foreign visitors, whose every gesture they find hilarious. One girl, of maybe 11, wearing violet-blue glass earrings, struck us as strikingly beautiful. We took photographs of her, for which she posed with confidence, but as we left the camp, we feared for what the future might hold for her. The thought passed through one's mind that if sex traffickers were as active here as the people-smugglers, which we were told was the case, then what hope for this girl?

And even if she were lucky and escaped the clutches of evil men – who reportedly sell Rohingya girls to places as far away as China – what kind of a future could she hope to have?

The children's smiles and laughter were little different to those of children with access to soap and water and food and education and Nintendos in the greenest suburbs of Surrey. But fast-forward a decade in your imagination and the little girl with the violet-blue earrings transforms into Nur Ayesha, a woman of 23 I met inside a sweltering shack.

Nur, a woman of delicate features in a hard face, told me she had left Arakan four years ago to get married, as she and the man she loved lacked the marriage licence money that the Burmese military demanded of them (assuming they would have been lucky enough to have secure official permission to marry).

But after a year of life in Kutupalong, her husband decided to set off alone in search of a better life for them both. She did not know, or would not tell, whether he had gone on a boat to Malaysia or tried to get there overland, as some also did. But the fact was that he never returned.

She assumed he had died, leaving her with a two-year-old child for whom she could not care. "I was sick and so was the child. I had no money for treatment. I was hungry and had no money to buy food," she told me, bringing to mind an image I had seen at a nearby port of another young woman, waist deep in water with a child in her arm, begging for fish from an arriving boat.

So Nur took the option of last resort. "I was told that there were people who bought little children. I sold my two-year-old boy to some people who said they were from the city."

Nur tells herself that the people who bought the child will rear him well; that they bought him because they were unable to have children themselves. Workers for NGO's who know Bangladesh well say this is unfortunately unlikely to be true; that the mother is either deceiving herself or lying. The child, they assured me, is condemned to a life of slavery, possibly even sex slavery. I asked Nur how much she had sold her child for. She replied, registering no horror or sense of injustice, as if the price had been fair one, that she had sold him for 500 taka – about £4.

"I am sad, I will always be sad, but what could I do?" She might have avoided the need to do that had her husband made it to Malaysia and sent money back to her in the refugee camp. But, was life really better for the Rohingyas in Malaysia? Was the pursuit of that dream worth the cost and the sacrifice and the risk?

Mohammed and Salim, having made it there, seemed to think that, on balance, the answer was yes. Mohammed had found some occasional work on a building-site, and has met up with a small Rohingya community and found a little mosque where he can pray in peace, whenever he wants. His regret is that he has not managed to live up to his family's hopes yet, and has not been able to send any money home.

Salim, who has found a job in a tea shop, has sent money home, only to discover that a third of it is immediately lifted in "tax" by the local Burmese military who exercise such close Big Brother control over the Rohingya population that they can detect, through phone-tapping and spies, when a family acquires new money.

Did he consider himself, nonetheless, fortunate? Salim thought long and hard before answering. "I consider myself fortunate that I was let go from the boat and brought here, and that many died and I survived. But my greatest fear is that I will be arrested here and end up working as a slave on a fishing boat again, and that then I may not be so lucky, that I might have to do that forever."

I asked him if he would ever return to Burma. "I would like to see my family again," said small, neat, deliberate Salim, a bright boy with dark sad eyes who at 18 has already lived a thousand lives. "But how? No, it is not possible. This is my life now."

It is his life now, just at it is the life of some 25,000 Rohingyas who have found a precarious home in Malaysia.

I went to a school in Penang province, or rather a little house, where a dozen or so Rohingya children spent their days doing what the children at Kutupalong wished they could do: learning writing, maths, English, the Koran. On a wall there was a chart with the flags of all the countries of the world on it. I asked a teacher to point out to me his flag. I asked a child. I asked all the children. Each silently and without hesitation placed their finger on the flag of Burma, a country from which they have fled, that does not want them and that humiliated and exploited them every day of their lives.

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