This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The names of the refugees below have been changed to protect their identities.
Imagine the choice between throwing your fate into the hands of notoriously abusive human traffickers or staying in a place facing the highest risk of genocide in the world. This is the choice faced by hundreds of thousands of people from the Rohingya minority in western Burma today.
The reality of their trials was brought to life for me recently in a crowded home of refugees in Malaysia, where an estimated 100,000 Rohingya have now fled. Each has a slightly different story, but the following accounts are fairly typical.
Stage 1: Intimidation and Poverty
Salim, a 30-year-old fish and vegetable trader in western Burma, is detained by local authorities and beaten—not for any crime, but for choosing to self-identify as a “Rohingya” during the 2014 census. The government of Burma denies the existence of Rohingya, choosing to label them as undocumented “Bengalis” from neighboring Bangladesh, despite the fact that many Rohingya can trace their origins in Burma back several generations. Local authorities tell Salim he has a choice: He can either pay for passage out of the country or face the risk of death.
Bibi Khadija, 20, and her husband worry about the lack of food, medicine, and education for their children in the displacement camps they’re forced to live in.
Some 150,000 Rohingya in western Burma have fled their homes since violent clashes erupted between local Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in 2012, disproportionately affecting Rohingya. They’ve been forced by the government to live in displacement camps that have been described as open-air prisons. Stories spread throughout the camps of the promise of a better life in Malaysia, encouraging Bibi Khadija to approach the well-known “agent” in their camp. There’s such an agent in every camp, more than willing to help—for a price, typically the equivalent of $100 to $200.