The young woman had been penned in a camp in the sweltering jungle of southern Thailand for two months when she was offered a deal.
By CHRIS BUCKLEY and ELLEN BARRYAUG. 2, 2015
GELUGOR, Malaysia — The young woman had been penned in a camp in the sweltering jungle of southern Thailand for two months when she was offered a deal.
She fled Myanmar this year hoping to reach safety in Malaysia, after anti-Muslim rioters burned her village. But her family could not afford the $1,260 the smugglers demanded to complete the journey.
A stranger was willing to pay for her freedom, the smugglers said, if she agreed to marry him.
“I was allowed to call my parents, and they said that if I was willing, it would be better for all the family,” said the woman, Shahidah Yunus, 22. “I understood what I must do.”
She joined the hundreds of young Rohingya women from Myanmar sold into marriage to Rohingya men already in Malaysia as the price of escaping violence and poverty in their homeland.
While some Rohingya women agree to such marriages to escape imprisonment or worse at the hands of smugglers, others are tricked or coerced. Some are only teenagers.
Their numbers are difficult to gauge, but officials and activists estimate that in recent years hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohingya women every year have been married off this way, and that their numbers have been increasing.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that a surge of maritime migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar this year brought an increase in “abductions and marriages arranged without the consent of women whose passage was ultimately paid for by prospective husbands.”
“Hundreds, if not thousands, of women and girls have been forced, sold or arranged for marriage via these trafficking corridors since 2012,” said Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group in Bangkok that monitors Rohingya refugees. “For some families, it’s viewed as an imperative, as a survival mechanism.”
“The trafficking gangs are treating this as a rather lucrative business,” he said, adding that for the women and girls, “being sold or forced into marriage is the least-worst outcome, and that’s a problem.”
Ms. Yunus, who now shares a house with her 38-year-old husband and 17 other Rohingyas on Penang Island, Malaysia, said she had little choice after an uncle who had promised to pay for her journey failed to do so.
“I chose to marry my husband because the smugglers needed money to release me,” she said. “We were afraid of rape. It is better to marry a Rohingya man who can take care of us.”
Sharifah Shakirah, a Rohingya refugee in Kuala Lumpur who advises refugees on resettlement, said that many of the women held by smugglers fear that if they do not find husbands quickly, “the traffickers might sell them to do sex work” in Thailand or India.
While such trafficking is not unheard-of, it appears to be deployed more commonly as a threat than an eventuality.
Some women have no say in the matter, according to Mr. Smith of Fortify Rights, which is preparing a report on marriages and human trafficking.
“They don’t care about anything,” one 15-year-old girl said of her traffickers, according to notes provided by Mr. Smith. “If someone pays money, we would have to go to them.”
The young women often undertake the journeys under pressure from parents, anxious to send their daughters to safety and to reduce their domestic burdens, and are lured on by smugglers’ rosy promises about the cost of the voyage and the good life that awaits them in Malaysia, Rohingyas and experts said.
In reality, single women who board smugglers’ ships without the means to pay become merchandise, held in a camp or aboard a ship until someone pays for their release.
If the smugglers know the woman’s family cannot afford the cost, “they will inform other people and say, ‘We have this woman,’ ” Ms. Shakirah said.
The husbands often turn out to be older and poorer than promised. Some women end up trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships.
Two years ago, Ambiya Khatu, 21, married a man in Malaysia who paid $1,050 for her release from smugglers in Thailand. “Even though he is too old for me, my mother agreed to the marriage,” she said. “There was nobody to rescue us, so I agreed.”
In Myanmar, formerly Burma, she had hoped to study nursing and work in a hospital. Now she lives in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, caring for her mother, her ill sister and her sister’s baby in a cramped room, while awaiting the return of her husband. He disappeared months ago, saying he was looking for work.
“After being rescued, my husband asked if I wanted to marry him,” Ms. Khatu said, her round, expressive face a palette of conflicted emotions. “He said, ‘If you don’t want to marry me, you can simply pay back my money which I spent on you.’ ”
That was impossible.
“I don’t know the language, so how will I work to pay him?” she said. “Also, we don’t have any relatives here, and I don’t have any legal documentation, so there was no option for me except marriage.”
Her mother, Mabiya Khatu, shook her head and murmured in disapproval. Her own husband was killed in 2012, when rioters swept into their village, leaving the family impoverished, she said. The alternative was her daughters being sold into sexual slavery, she said.
“If I didn’t give my daughter to him, then the traffickers might have sold her into the wrong hands,” the mother said. “Traffickers tried to sell both my daughters, so I got them married, and here she is in safe hands, and able to eat at least.”
The younger Ms. Khatu frowned. “I didn’t like him,” she said, “but I had to like him.”
Rohingya men who paid smugglers for brides were reluctant to discuss how the deals were struck. But a phone call recorded by investigators from Fortify Rights last September between a Rohingya woman held in a camp in Thailand and a Rohingya broker reveals the harsh calculus determining a woman’s fate.
“You have never married yet?” the broker asks, according to a transcript provided by Fortify Rights.
“I have never married,” she says.
The broker says that he knows an eligible man, an elderly Rohingya, willing to pay $780 for the rest of her journey to Malaysia.
“Will you marry?” the broker asks.
“Yes, I will marry, if that is the will of God,” she answers. “We are in a difficult situation. Would you please try to take us in two or three days? We cannot get food, water, clothes, and cannot take a bath.”
After the deal is made, the broker tells a guard in the camp that he needs several more single women for prospective husbands.
“You can see them first,” the guard says. “If you want to take one or two, that is your decision.”
The transactions are not always so clear-cut, however, especially given that Rohingya women come from a culture where arranged marriages are the norm. But in their villages, the women often know the prospective husbands, and they are likely to have more say in the decision.
In some cases, impoverished families arrange marriages in advance to pay for a daughter’s trip.
Some of the women who marry to pay a smuggler’s fare describe it as a choice, but Susan Kneebone, a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia who is studying forced migration and marriage in Southeast Asia, says that these marriages amount to trafficking when violence, threats or misleading promises are used.
“The idea of trafficking is really one of whether there has been an abuse of power,” she said. “These women actually don’t have that much freedom within their own community, I suspect, and that’s all made much worse by the fact that they’re traveling to another country.”
After anti-Muslim violence erupted in Western Myanmar in 2012, most of the refugees were men. But the number of women and children fleeing from Myanmar has risen in the past two years.
One reason is the scarcity of eligible Rohingya men in Myanmar. The shortage has also raised the cost of dowries paid by the brides’ families, said Chris Lewa, a Rohingya rights advocate based in Bangkok. Conversely, she said, the high ratio of Rohingya men to women in Malaysia made men there more willing to pay for a bride’s journey and to forgo a dowry.
This year and last year, she said, “one can safely say that at least 5,000 young women embarked on boats and would have entered in a marriage after arriving in Malaysia.”
For now, the smuggling has been paused by a regional crackdown and the rough weather of the monsoon season. But some Rohingya women are waiting for the trade to resume so they too can flee, even if the price of a ticket is marriage.
Tahera Begum, 18, a Rohingya woman who had fled Myanmar a few months earlier, was staying with her sister-in-law in a makeshift camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, waiting to continue her journey to marry a man in Malaysia who was chosen by her brother, also in Malaysia.
She had not seen a picture of the man, but they had spoken to him on the phone several times.
“When I talked to him, he said he had a job, so he had an income,” she said. “I would have been happier if I could stay here, but my brother wanted me to get married in Malaysia.
“If I get the signal from my brother or husband-to-be,” she said, “I will try again.”
Chris Buckley reported from Gelugor, Malaysia, and Ellen Barry from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Jonah M. Kessel contributed reporting from Kuala Lumpur.