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On the Carrion Route

On the Carrion Route

Misery chases refugee Rohingiya and Bangladeshi women ? from home to
Karachi's brothels

By ASHIS K. BISWAS in Calcutta
>From OUTLOOK magazine
April 24, 2000

FOR large numbers of Bangladeshi and Rohingiya women, it's a journey to
hell. A journey that begins from 'home' ? the borders of lower Myanmar
and Bangladesh ? and culminates in the festering ghettos of Karachi and
other Pakistani cities. In officialese this is subcontinental illegal
human trafficking, although calling it plain slave trade would be a
better description. Once in Pakistan, the price of a female illegal
migrant ranges from $1,285 to $2,428, depending on her 'physical
attributes and conditioning'. Harassed, tortured, exploited and abused
every step of the longest refugee trail in Asia, only the lucky ones die

At least the women from Bangladesh enjoy a slight 'advantage' in that
they possess a national identity. It is the Rohingiya women who are
truly rootless ? rejected by their native Myanmar, illegal migrants in
Bangladesh, India or Pakistan, their stateless status renders them fair
game for every pimp, tout, police informer and border guard across the
subcontinent, not to mention the agents who run this flesh trade.

The Rohingiyas of the Arakan province of Myanmar are conservative
Muslims in religion whose customs and rituals resemble those of
Bangladeshis settled in the areas bordering Myanmar. Their first
recorded settlements in Burma go back several centuries. When the
British took over Burma in 1784, there was no ethnic tension. But
relations between the primarily Buddhist ruling Burmese elite and the
Rohingiyas were always strained. The change of guard in Burma in 1962,
when the army took over, rendered these people more vulnerable, in that
not even the figleaf of a democratic safeguard or human rights
considerations now remained.

Ironically, in Arakan, both the ruling SLORC military junta and their
opponents, protagonists of greater Arakanese autonomy, are hostile
towards the Rohingiyas. It is alleged that Islamic fundamentalists,
aided by the Saudi Arabian NGO-cum-religious organisation Rabita, use
them for local conversions. In 1962 and 1978, after they were attacked
by the Burmese troops and frequently by the Rakhines (Buddhist
Arakanese) as well, there were mass Rohingiya migrations to Bangladesh.
In 1982, an amendment in citizenship laws robbed them of even minimum
rights and by 1992, ethnic cleansing operations had forced around
250,000 Rohingiyas to escape to Bangladesh ? where they mostly settled
in shantytowns in Cox's Bazaar, Chittagong.

Sajda, a 19-year-old Rohingiya girl, in an interview to the social
welfare-oriented Image Asia group last March, related her experience of
life in Myanmar: "Rape is very common. Women are too scared to leave
their homes. The military kidnapped girls and took them to their camps.
They were released only after being gangraped. Women aren't safe even in
their houses." Says Rahima, a widow with two sons in Pakistan, "The army
took my husband as a porter and gave him no food for two weeks.
Starvation and the beatings he was subjected to killed him. Other
porters brought his body. I cleaned houses for a living. The government
took away everything, our land, house, to give to the Rakhines, saying,
'you are not our people, go away'."

Estimates about the size of Rohingiya influx into the neighbouring
countries vary, but agencies like UBINIG (a Bangladesh NGO) and the
UNHCR agree that out of nearly 200,000 illegal 'Bangladeshi' women
believed to be now living in Karachi alone, at least 20,000 are
Rohingiyas. Most deny their origin, perhaps to escape the stigma of
being homeless, and claim to be Bangladeshis. But that doesn't alter
their living conditions and most are forced to work as rag-pickers,
casual labourers and sex workers.

OFFICIAL indifference to such illegal human trafficking, from Myanmar to
Pakistan, hasn't just sealed the fate of these unfortunate women but has
directly helped those who benefit from it ? supplying agents and touts,
border guards, policemen and greasy-fingered officials. Myanmar
authorities refuse to accept Rohingiyas as bona fide citizens. In
general, the behaviour of Bangladeshi authorities is marginally better.
"They allow us to pass through their area, provided we do not stay on,"
says one woman. However, others complained of pressure from Bangladeshi
authorities who apparently stopped food supplies and also adopted other
means to make sure they returned to Myanmar. On return they were
promptly evicted again.

The fact of the Rohingiyas being denied their land and their cycle of
enforced migration isn't something that leaves India unaffected. The
Rohingiyas are forced to enter India through the porous borders of West
Bengal, where the political leadership and the administration is only
too happy to admit refugee minorities from Bangladesh or Myanmar after
making sure that the right persons are bribed and that the newcomers
pledge their support to the right political party. The passage through
India to Pakistan may take anything from a week to a month, depending on
the luck of the migrants and the strength of their agents' political
connections. Mostly, Rohingiya and Bangladeshi women enter through
Bongaon and other checkpoints on the Indo-Bangla border, reaching
Calcutta, which is a major transit point, en route to Pakistan. Many,
however, have settled in West Bengal itself, working as domestic helps
and living in shanties near railway stations.

The women have found some backing from the Left parties although such
support comes with strings attached. "At every step the women are
vulnerable to the local area bosses, panchayat leaders and the police,
who have to be bribed regularly and who think nothing of extracting
other favours from these women who cannot approach officials for fear of
detection and deportation," explains an NGO spokesman.

For the Bangladeshis, it is always possible to make periodic trips back
home to meet relatives or to send money. But the Rohingiyas "cannot
dream of such luxuries," says a UBINIG spokesman. "Even when pushed back
from Bangladesh, they cannot return home simply because Myanmar doesn't
accept them as citizens. Either they are again pushed out or simply
worked to death in labour camps where they don't exist even as
statistical details." The agony does not end after migrating out and
there have been instances of Rohingiyas also being jailed both in India
and Bangladesh.

For these women there's absolutely no deliverance at hand. Consigned to
a rootless fate, with barely any connections in the alien societies they
are forced to live in, their agents and touts wield the power of life
and death over them. Being violently erased from their land isn't all,
these people also face a destruction of their basic cultural identity.
There're many instances of Rohingiya women forgetting their mother
tongue after years of stay in Pakistan. Young Bangladeshi girls may
dimly remember their parents, perhaps even vaguely recognise them, but
can't speak to them. They earn only a pittance and have to
unquestioningly shell out bribes for the sake of living a miserable life
in the filthiest surroundings, doing the most demeaning of jobs without
any medical help or education.

Ironically, for most of them, even hell is better than suffering in
their own country. It appears that in Pakistan or India, even in
conditions of utter degradation, one can still earn enough to keep body
and soul together. "Back home, there is no source of income, no money
and frequent starvation is a way of life. In Myanmar, living standards
in the border areas are worse than conditions even in Bangladesh," says
Hanifa, a Rohingiya woman from Myanmar, echoing the sentiments
Bangladeshis advance as an explanation for their illegal migration to
India or Pakistan. And for the 'host' contries, these people are an
unending source of cheap labour. They would never dare challenge their
exploitation. It's a brutal, vicious cycle of dehumanisation. And
there's no end in sight.