“I was trafficked 7 times”
Ziaur Rahman. A young Rohingya living in Kuala Lumpur
It’s not easy being a Rohingya. Being stateless means you have absolutely no bargaining power. Being stateless means governments, practicing policies of non-intervention, turn a blind eye to your plight. Then, there are those who say the Rohingyas are getting their comeuppance for asking for independence back in the late 1940s.
Sitting across me this afternoon is a young Rohingya man. Ziaur Rahman, 24, has been a refugee all his life. He was not even born in 1946, when Muslim leaders from Rakhine State met with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan but he paid the ultimate price with his freedom or rather, the lack of it.
Ziaur left Myanmmar when he was only a few months old. Unbearable conditions in Myanmar compelled his parents to flee to Bangladesh and this was the start of a very difficult life. Now, Ziaur is a victim of human trafficking; unable to return to Myanmar or Bangladesh where his mother still lives in a refugee camp.
His ordeal started in October 2014 when human traffickers kidnapped him outside Kutupalong Registered Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. They covered his face, tied his hands and beat him before putting him on a boat where he was sold to other traffickers.
There were more than 300 people on board along with 10 traffickers. Conditions were unbearable and people were cramped against each other. They were not fed for five days and this resulted in two deaths. The dead were unceremoniously thrown into the sea. The real tragedy is that some of the traffickers on the boat were Rohingyas.
Ziaur drank sea water and when he was extremely hungry, he stole the traffickers’ food. They punished him and he lost his right eye. His ordeal continued when the boat landed in Thailand. Victims of human trafficking are usually trafficked more than once.
In Ziaur’s case, it was seven times before he ended up at a house in Penang. The traffickers operate using a network that crosses international borders. Victims are moved seamlessly from one gang to another, aided by corrupt officials. Throughout each stage, these victims are abused, beaten and starved.
The traffickers in Penang demanded RM8,000 from that he was unable to pay. So, they starved him. After three days, Ziaur and another captive, a Bangladeshi, escaped. He eventually made his way to the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur where he was issued with an asylum seeker card.
Even with the UN Refugee Card, Ziaur cannot work in Malaysia. He has held a number of jobs but was never paid what he deserves. This opens the door for further abuse of his rights and inhumane work and living conditions by employers.
Ziaur’s refugee status means that even after escaping from the traffickers, he will continue to be exploited by those around him. But, there is a sliver lining. Ziaur speaks English and this allows him to affect change. He believes his story will open the eyes of the world to the horrors the Rohingyas face every day. This drives him and Ziaur tirelessly tells stories of his people. For example, during the filming of Bodies for Sale, a film by Mahi Ramakrishnan about the plight of the Rohingyas, Ziaur told his story to the audience.
Ziaur showed me where he lived; a tiny room at the back of a building. It houses more than 20 people and there is only one bathroom to serve their needs. It is stifling hot under the zinc roof but he is grateful for the roof over his head. In his room, there are a few number of mementos to remind him of home. One is a calendar featuring a quote by U Nu, the first Prime Minister of Burma. ‘Rohingya are ethnic people living within the Union of Burma’, said U Nu In a national radio address in 1954.
Stored neatly in a cabinet are his precious documents; newspaper clippings about his people, certificate of attendance for various workshops, Ziaur’s own writings. I looked at his room then looked up at a young man marooned in a foreign country without a passport and no way to see his mother again and yet, working tirelessly to inform the world of the Rohingyas’ plight.
Ziaur wanted to cook for me. There was a little kitchen just outside the room he shares with a Bangladeshi. I shared a plate of oranges with him before he allowed me to buy him lunch.
The Bangladesh government do not want the Rohingyas at the refugee camps and have forcibly repatriated them but where will they go? Ziaur’s uncle who went on a hunger strike along with his mother against the forced repatriation in 1997 still languishes in jail.
I asked Ziaur where he would like to live. He did not hesitate. He wants to return to Myanmar but without a passport, it is not possible. It’s not even possible to return to Bangladesh where his mother lives in a refugee camp.
Ziaur said that the Rohingyas are sometimes mistaken for Bangladeshis and classified as economic migrants but this is inaccurate. The Rohingyas are a persecuted people; caught between Myanmar who have rendered them stateless and Bangladesh who prefer that they return to Myanmar.
I don’t claim to know of any solutions to the hardship faced by the Rohingyas. However, I hope that people will read and share his story. Ziaur wants us to acknowledge the right of his people to exist in a country that they call home.
In Malaysia, we can reach out and help the Rohingyas. Volunteer with one of the numerous NGOs who assist the Rohingyas in their daily struggle. Donations are also welcome.
This is Ziaur Rahman’s story.