KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On New Year’s Day, Mohammad Hashim left Rakhine state in western Myanmar with only the clothes on his back and a small pack of food and water. He knew the journey would be dangerous and exhausting, but the 18-year-old stateless Rohingya Muslim felt it was his duty as the eldest child to find work in Malaysia.
Hashim had been stuck with his parents and seven siblings - his youngest brother only 2 years old - in the sprawling, squalid The Chaung displacement camp in rural Sittwe ever since Buddhist mobs torched their house last June in the first of two bloody bouts of sectarian violence that erupted last year.
His parents, who used to sell fruits and vegetables at the Sittwe market, became jobless and when their life in the displacement camp became unbearable, they passed the duty of breadwinner on to Hashim.
“Son, we’re old so even if we die that's fine, but you're still young. You should leave,” he recounted his parents telling him.
So Hashim, who had never left his village before and does not know how to swim, boarded a small wooden, engine-powered boat with 179 others at a jetty near the camp on January 1.
Their goal was to reach Malaysia - about 2,000 km away via the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Strait - where tens of thousands of other fleeing Rohingya have found refuge.
Hashim had paid a smuggler 200,000 kyats (about $220) - a sum his family could ill afford but managed to raise by selling whatever they had and asking relatives for help - for a space on the boat, the passengers packed like sardines.
“We couldn’t move,” Hashim said.
The journey took 15 days, but food and water had run out by day nine. They survived with help from passing fishermen.
SAFER BUT STILL NO PEACE
The clandestine nature of the boat trips makes it difficult to know exactly how many Rohingya have left Myanmar, but estimates put the number at more than 27,000 since last June, the largest in years. For the first time, large numbers of women and children are also embarking on the treacherous - and often deadly - journeys.
Yet leaving has become a means of survival for the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, where last year’s violence left 192 dead and forced 140,000, mostly Muslims, to flee their homes. The unfettered riots raised concerns over the government’s commitment to its nascent democratic reforms.
Although the Rohingya have been in Rakhine state for centuries, Myanmar has excluded them from the country’s 135 recognised ethnic groups and denied them citizenship, rendering them stateless.
Ethnic hatred and apartheid-like policies segregating minority Muslims from the Buddhist majority mean they are denied employment and even medical treatment.
However, many who embark for Malaysia do not make it. About 2,000 are languishing in detention centres in Thailand. Those who do make it have limited job opportunities and are vulnerable to corrupt officials and unscrupulous employers.
Rohingya refugees in Malaysia who are not registered with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) - a process some Rohingya say can take two to three years - can be arrested by police looking for “tea money”, are unable to negotiate their wages and have no recourse if the employers do not pay them.
Abdul Hamid, head of the Rohingya Society in Malaysia, told Thomson Reuters Foundation he believes there are about 10,000 new arrivals who are not registered and thus have no protection. Some 28,000 Rohingya are currently registered.
They may be safer from Myanmar’s marauding mobs, but they are far from finding peace, especially after violence spilled over to Malaysia recently. When four Buddhists from Myanmar were killed, the police rounded up more than 900 Myanmar nationals, and authorities said they would expel Myanmar workers.
“All refugees in Malaysia (are living) in fear of getting arrested,” Hamid said.
Still, it trumps life back home. Interviews by this correspondent with displaced Rohingya in Sittwe found that many are desperate and determined to take to the seas if the situation does not improve in Myanmar by October – when the monsoon rains end and the boat journey is safe again.
Malaysian authorities intercepted the boat that Hashim was on before it reached Langkawi, a popular island resort. They brought it to shore.
"When we reached land, many people couldn't walk because we had all been sitting so tightly for so long. We were all weak,” Hashim said.
He was taken to two detention centres in two states, sleeping with tens of other detainees in one room. They were not allowed out of the room except for meals, Hashim said.
"I didn't feel good at all (in detention),” he said. “I regretted coming. If I had known it would be like this, maybe I wouldn't have come."
Like many others who arrived in Malaysia by boat, authorities had detained him for four months. Gangly, quiet, and looking younger than his 18 years, Hashim was nowhere near finding a job when he gave this interview in early June on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. He had been released only two weeks earlier.
There was a silver lining, however. UNHCR visited and interviewed Hashim and the others from his boat, worked on their release and provided them with documentation that makes their stay in Malaysia legal.
A little sheet of white paper, folded neatly and kept in the pocket of his trousers, says Hashim is an asylum seeker whose appeal is being processed and permits him to stay in Malaysia till October 2014. It is his most precious possession.
Although the paper does not allow him to work, Hashim is determined to find a job, raise money and bring his family over to Malaysia.
A Rohingya man from Hashim’s village who has taken him in because the young man has no friends or family in Malaysia said getting a good job would be difficult. “Because of his age and size, he has limited options and we haven’t found a job for him yet.”