Two and a half years ago, twelve indigenous people from Cox’s Bazar, all farmers, set off for Malaysia with dreams of putting an end to their poverty.
They had no idea of the heavy toll the voyage would take on their lives.
Chayikkhiyo Sin, 35, Kiyo Cha, 55, Uthe Chin, 25, Nene Sing, 31, Uthe Cha, 25, Keu Mong, 25, and Zai Mong, 25, are from Monkhali Chakma para, Jaliya Palong Union, Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar district.
Ong Che, 25, and Babul Hashem Chakma, 35, are from Horikola Chakma para in Teknaf; Soifung Sing, 65, is from Telkhola village in Ukhiya; Keo Zi, 16, is from Matabunia in Ukhiya; and Chhatai Mong, 17, is from Teelkhali, Teknaf.
“In December 2012, we started our journey from Kutubdia after spending a night at a hotel in Chokoria in Chittagong. We had no idea that we were to be imprisoned for a year and a half in a Malaysian jail and would then be deported,” Chaikkhiyo Sing said at Shamlapur Bazar, locally pronounced Shaplapur, in Teknaf.
“We were convinced to make the trip by Shafiullah, a Rohingya living in Monkhali village. Once a fisherman, Shafiullah was well known to us. He demanded Tk100,000 from each of us to arrange the trip. We paid Tk50,000 each before departing,” he said.
They were to travel in a simple fishing boat Shafiullah brought for Tk500,000 to make the journey to Malaysia.
The outcome was imprisonment for one and a half years in Malaysian custody until 10 of them were finally returned to Bangladesh with the help of the Bangladesh Embassy there.
Keo Zi and Chhatai Mong successfully won the right to live in Malaysia. Shafiullah, who went with them, bringing along his wife and five children, achieved permanent residency after serving a three-month jail sentence.
The promise of a better life
Some 155 indigenous families, numbering nearly 1400 people, live in Monkhali village.
The village is afflicted with extreme poverty. Ignorance and a lack of facilities are the main reasons for the migrants’ desire to go to Malaysia. The hope of improving their families’ economic situation is the driving force behind their decision to illegally migrate.
Subrata Chakma, who is a shopkeeper in Monkhali village, said: “Most of our people are involved in day labour as there is little scope for our traditional jhum cultivation.
“Some work as farmers although they own no land. Working as a day labourer or farmer can earn you Tk250 a day. However, we do not get hired daily but, perhaps, 4 or 5 days a week. It is very difficult to survive”
“We do not get electricity here. Many of our children become fallen before they reach high school. People here think that earning money is more important than being educated,” said Subrata, who is also the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum vice president for Ukhiya.
There is no hygienic sanitation in the village.
“We feel underprivileged as none of our indigenous rights-based organisations or any other people come to see how we are living here,” he said.
So the would-be migrants were easily convinced by Shafiullah’s proposal and decided that they would risk the trip to Malaysia.
“It was not about greed. Our life is miserable and hard.
“When Shafiullah proposed, we thought it would better to go Malaysia rather than dying here. We also thought, if one of our family members could go there, we could live better and our children could then get a proper education,” Chaikkhiyo Sing said.
The journey and jail
When they reached Kutubdia, from where they departed for Malaysia, they found 116 more people who were also going to go with them.
“We were 27 Bangladeshis and 101 Rohingyas. There were also two Rohingya women who also brought 5 children, aged under 10, with them. Both of their husbands lived in Malaysia and they were going to join their husbands,” Chaikkhiyo said.
“We brought rice, potatoes, flattened rice, sweets and 3000 litres of water to last a month for all 128 people,” he added.
They brought with them belongings like clothing and mobile telephones. The simple fishing boat departed from Kutubdia and set sail for Malaysia.
“We were in the boat like sacks. The days in the boat were the most dangerous and fearful of our lives.
“We thrice faced rough storms in the ocean. We prayed. Some cried thinking this was the end,” said Uthe Ching, another migrant.
“It cannot be described in words how we felt when faced death on the water.”
Voyager Keo Cha said: “After six days and six nights, we were caught by Indian police in the middle of the ocean.
“Two ships brought us to a nearby town, which we later came to know was in the Andaman Islands.”
“We were captives there for 18 days. Then they released us with 18 days’ worth of food,” the migrants told the Dhaka Tribune.
After another six days and six nights, they reached a Malaysian port and were again taken custody, this time by the Malaysian Navy.
“When they interrogated us, all of us claimed to be Rohingyas as Shafiullah earlier instructed us to do. He also told us if we said we were Bangladeshi, they would arrest us and send us back to Bangladesh,” Chaikkhiyo said.
Although all the Bangladeshi voyagers claimed to be Rohingyas, interrogations proved them to be Bangladeshis.
Chaikkhiyo Sing said: “When they asked several questions we could not reply in Myanmar language. Again we also could not reply the name of the prime minister of Myanmar.
“So they arrested all of us, including the Rohingya people, and imprisoned us for 3 months.
“After three months of jail, we were brought to a military camp in Malaysia. Life was much harder there. Our bodies became swollen. Our loved ones would not have recognised us. It was very hard.”
Chaikkhiyo Sing continued: “After three months of jail, Shafiullah got a red card allowing him to stay in Malaysia with his family. We Bangladeshis were brought to the military camp. All the Rohingyas were given red cards. Our two indigenous friends Keo Zi and Chhatai Mong also got red cards because they were under 18 years of age.”
“We saw over a thousand Bangladeshis in the Malaysian camp. There were more than five thousand Rohingyas there,” he said.
The migrants said they prepared for and set off on the voyage in secret. There were no intermediaries or brokers involved in their journey.
Shafiullah acted alone as the captain of the voyage, using the boat he had bought, the returned migrants said.
Chaikkhiyo Sing said: “Many do make it and many manage to send home good money – that is true. But there is a lot of suffering and many risks involved.”
“We will never again think of going to Malaysia. If we knew before what suffering we would have to endure, we would not have gone.”