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For young Rohingya brides, marriage means a dangerous, deadly crossing

BANGKOK – Haresa counted the days by the moon, grew and abated over the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Her days on the trawler crowded into a room so tight that she could not even stretch her legs, bleeding for weeks, the weeks for months.

“People were fighting as if they were fishing around,” Ms Haresa, 18, said of the other refugees on the boat. “Then they stopped moving.”

Thousands of bodies were thrown overboard, some were beaten and some starved, the survivors said. Mrs. Haresa’s aunt died, then her brother.

Six full moons after she boarded the fishing boat in Bangladesh in hopes that traffickers would ferry her to Malaysia for an arranged marriage, Mrs Haresa who goes by one name and nearly 300 other Rohingya refugees took refuge in Indonesia last month. Her sister, 21, died two days after the boat landed.

Bound from their homes in Myanmar and crowded into refugee settlements in neighboring Bangladesh, thousands of Rohingya have taken the dangerous boat crossing to Malaysia, where many from the persecuted minority group are struggling as undocumented workers. Hundreds have died along the way.

Most of those now making the journey are, like Mrs Haresa, girls and young women from refugee camps in Bangladesh, whose parents have promised them marriage to Rohingya men in Malaysia. Two-thirds of those who landed in Indonesia last month with Mrs Haresa were women.

“My parents are getting old and my brothers are with their own families,” she said. “How long will my parents bear the burden of me?”

Through matchmaking of a cousin in Malaysia working as a lawn mower, Mrs. Bibi’s parents found a fiancé for her. She asked for details about the man, but no one was provided except his name, she said.

After surviving more than six months at sea in a failed attempt to reach him, Mrs. Bibi from Indonesia spoke with her fiancé a country away. The phone call lasted two minutes. “He sounded young,” she said. That’s the extent of what she knows about him.

Mrs Bibi initially told staff at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that she was 15 years old, but later changed her age to 18. Child marriage is common among Rohingya, especially in the rural population.

Mostly stateless, the Muslim minority has been subjected to an apartheid-like existence in the Buddhist majority Myanmar. Over the past few years, pogrom waves have pushed Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, where human traffickers welcome the young and desperate in the refugee camps along with their families.

The flow of people has increased since 2017, when more than three-quarters of a million Rohingya fled an ethnic cleansing campaign in Myanmar. As the coronavirus pandemic tightens its borders, the journey at sea has become even more difficult. For months this year, boats loaded with hundreds of Rohingya migrants drifted at sea and could not find a safe haven. Authorities in Thailand and Malaysia repeatedly pushed them away.

Fishermen in Aceh, on the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, are among the few who have welcomed Rohingya. A violent trawler with about 100 refugees landed in June, followed by the larger boat on 7 September.

“The question is how Southeast Asia as a region responds to this humanitarian crisis on the doorstep,” said Indrika Ratwatte, director of Asia-Pacific for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Bangladeshi government, which is struggling with its own vulnerable population amid the pandemic, has threatened to relocate thousands of Rohingya from the camps to a cyclone-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. The muddy island was uninhabited until the Bangladeshi fleet forced approx. 300 Rohingya – many of them women and children – to shelter there this summer when their attempt to sail to Malaysia ended after months at sea.

Earlier this month, several Rohingya died in clashes between various gangs in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, which is considered the largest settlement of refugees in the world. Some women say they dare as little as possible to use public latrines for fear of sexual violence.

Shamsun Nahar, 17, said she was desperate to leave the camps, even though she had heard the stories of how dangerous the transition could be. Her father, a clergyman, found her a match, a man from the same village in Rakhine who works as a carpenter in Malaysia.

“I talked to him on a video call and I liked him from all angles,” Ms Nahar said of their brief courtship. Telephone. “He was not too big, not too small. He looked good. ”

Her fiancé had to pay $ 4,500 for her passage, Ms. Nahar said. The place she occupied for several months on the boat was near the engine, so noisy that she could not hear the voices of others.

The smugglers and brokers, both Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, beat them with plastic pipes, she said. Food was served on a plastic plate smeared with leftovers from previous weeks, enveloping each meal with a dirty odor.

“I’m sure now, but I’m separated from my family and my fiancé,” Mrs Nahar said after arriving in Indonesia last month. “What will happen next? I do not know.”

Although past waves of Rohingya landing in Indonesia have mostly found their way to Malaysia, only a few from this year’s crossings have been able to reunite with their families or future husbands.

When Naemot Shah married his wife, Majuma Bibi, he was 14 and she was 12. The roofs of their childhood homes in Rakhine touched, he said, as closely as possible.

In 2014, Mr. Shah smuggled people to take him from Rakhine to Malaysia, a 28-day trip that nearly killed him, he said. His daughter was only six months old when he left. Three years later, his family fled to Bangladesh after the Myanmar military’s campaign of killings, rapes and forced expulsions against Rohingya.

From a refugee camp in Bangladesh, Shah’s wife asked him to pay for her and their daughter to join him in Malaysia. Knowing how risky the trip was, he refused.

But his wife, as Mr. Shah described as “very clever,” quietly saving the money he sent her from his job as a construction worker. In late March, she and her daughter boarded a fishing trawler tied up, they hoped, for where her husband lived.

“I was very sorry that they went without my permission,” said Mr. Shah.

When the news of mass drinking reached him, he assumed his family had died at sea. But in June, Shah, 24, heard that a boat had landed in Indonesia. Scanning the crowds on a video, he recognized his wife and daughter.

“I never felt such happiness as the day I found out they were alive,” Shah said.

Other Rohingya in Malaysia have taken second or third wife, he said. But he does not want to. Instead, he traveled to Indonesia to reunite with his wife and daughter. “I want to stick with a wife,” Mr. Shah. “She traveled all this way, suffered this difficult time for me.”

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