Rohingya teen still hopeful of new life after boat ordeal (The Straits Times)

LHOKSUKON (Indonesia) – Muhammad Shorif, a 16-year-old Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar, dreamed of one day being a doctor.

After fleeing a dismal upbringing in a refugee camp, he embarked on a dangerous sea voyage, only to find himself stranded on Indonesia’s farthest shores.

He had hoped to reach Malaysia where he would join his uncle, receive an education and start a new life far from the discrimination he suffered in his homeland. But instead he was washed ashore in a wooden boat with nearly 600 other desperate migrants, after a harrowing journey where they were beaten and threatened by people-smuggling gangs.

“My dream is to be a doctor and if I do become one, I want to go back home to Arakan and treat my Muslim brothers and sisters, because a lot of them are sick,” Shorif told Agence France-Presse, referring to the westernmost state of Myanmar where many Rohingya live in squalid conditions.

Clutching a bag of medicine provided by aid workers and nursing an injured leg, he recalled how his parents scraped together US$1,000 (S$1,300) from friends to put him on a small boat, which left Myanmar with around a dozen others. The hopes of a fresh start turned to horror when he was transferred to a much larger ship far out at sea, where hundreds of migrants from nearby vessels were crammed together, always under the threatening gaze of armed men from China, Myanmar and Thailand.

“We couldn’t sleep on the boat, because if we tried to lie down or stretch our legs out, they hit and kicked us,” Shorif told AFP in Lhoksukon, a city in Indonesia’s Aceh province where 582 migrants have been held since arriving at the weekend.

“They threatened to shoot us.”

The journey lasted a month, he said, with the passengers surviving on meagre rations of food and water and forced to endure the beating sun by day and cold at night. Not everyone survived the ordeal, Shorif said, with some of those on board succumbing to the harsh conditions.

“Six people on our boat died due to illness and hunger, and the captain ordered their bodies be thrown to the sea,” he said. Shorif is one of nearly 2,000 boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh who have swum ashore, been rescued or intercepted off Malaysia and Indonesia in recent days after Thailand, a key stop on human-smuggling routes, launched a crackdown on the trade.

His tale of hardship and mistreatment sheds light on the trade in human misery, and the lengths the Rohingya – a Muslim minority unwanted by Myanmar’s government – go to escape persecution in their homeland.

The Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights group, says as many as 8,000 people may be adrift at sea, and the International Organisation for Migration has called for urgent search-and-rescue operations to find the boats before it is too late for those on board. Shorif was lucky to reach land alive.

He said when they were near the border of Malaysia and Indonesia, their Thai captain abandoned ship, saying a speedboat was on its way to take them the rest of the journey. “We all cried because nobody knew how to navigate the boat, and we couldn’t do anything as they threatened to shoot us.”

Now the teen is crammed into a sports hall with hundreds of others where space is limited, ventilation poor and the toilets filthy.

But he still has hope, flashing a faded UNHCR identity card and proudly declaring himself a “Burmese Muslim”. UNHCR is the UN’s refugee agency. Shorif still plans to join his uncle in Malaysia, and is seeking assistance from IOM officials in Aceh.

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE