Tuesday 16 October 2018

We fled bullets... only to be then sold as sex slaves

Relief of Rohingya girls at escaping Burmese brutality replaced by horror of traffickers and forced prostitution in Bangladesh

Shame: Rohingya women live in fear in the refugee camps Photo: Anna Dubuis/DFID/PA Wire
Shame: Rohingya women live in fear in the refugee camps Photo: Anna Dubuis/DFID/PA Wire

Nicola Smith

Sadia had already fled her burning village in Burma's Rakhine state and seen her older brother marched off by soldiers to be shot before she was sold into prostitution in a seedy hotel in the Bangladeshi seaport of Chittagong.

Separated from her parents during their terrifying escape from a military crackdown on Burma's Rohingya minority that began in August, the teenager befriended another unaccompanied young girl, Ayesha, as they struggled to make it to safety in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Grim task: Rohingya Muslim men carry a body to a cemetery in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. Since late August, more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled Burma's Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh, where they are living in squalid refugee camps Photo: AP/Wong Maye-E
Grim task: Rohingya Muslim men carry a body to a cemetery in Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh. Since late August, more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled Burma's Rakhine state into neighbouring Bangladesh, where they are living in squalid refugee camps Photo: AP/Wong Maye-E

They crossed the border in September, but did not reach the sprawling refugee camp near the southern seaside resort of Cox's Bazar that now hosts more than 620,000 Rohingya refugees.

Instead they were deceived by Alamgir, a Rohingya man. He promised to marry Sadia and give Ayesha a job, but he sold them for £225 to a hotel owner who imprisoned the girls and pimped them out as prostitutes.

Their fate reflects growing warnings from aid agencies such as Unicef and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) that human trafficking and exploitation is now rife among desperate Rohingyas who fled ethnic cleansing in Burma with nothing but the clothing on their backs.

Subject to decades of repression, effectively under an apartheid system in Burma, the tide of persecuted Rohingya shows no sign of receding, despite a recent repatriation deal signed between Dhaka in Bangladesh and Naypyidaw, the modern capital of Myanmar.

With limited protection in Bangladesh, women and children, who make up the majority of the refugee population, are vulnerable.

Sadia and Ayesha, who concealed their small frames with modest Islamic clothing, gave The Sunday Telegraph a graphic account of the sexual abuse they had endured since arriving in Bangladesh.

"We were locked in a room and beaten and kicked if we refused to have sex. They also forced us to take drugs," said Sadia, as the girls huddled, child-like, on a sofa.

"On the first day it was a fat man with three of his friends. Then it was three to five men a day. The first time it hurt and I bled," she said, describing how Ayesha, who was withdrawn and barely spoke, had begun to suffer stomach pains.

The girls could not remember how long they had been locked up before local women helped them to escape Chittagong.

But their freedom was short-lived. Destitute and unable to pay for somewhere to stay, they became trapped in a cycle of abuse and prostitution in the back alleys of the sleazy red light district of Cox's Bazar.

"We have lost our parents. Where can we take shelter?" said Sadia, placing her head in her hands. "I don't know if my parents are alive and I want to go to the camp to find them, but I'm too frightened. I am now in disgrace.

"That man [Alamgir] has destroyed our lives."

Her fear of being publicly shamed in the Rohingyas' conservative Muslim society, where the "honour" of an unmarried woman and her family is firmly bound to her virginity, is not unfounded.

Harrowing reports of the widespread rape of Rohingya women by Burmese soldiers are well documented, but in the endless maze of flimsy, overcrowded huts in the Kutupalong refugee camp, survivors are desperately trying to conceal their pain for fear of being ostracised. One 15-year-old girl who had been gang-raped said her family had been taunted so much when their camp neighbours found out, that her brother had told her to kill herself.

Another girl, just 16, covered her face and stared blankly at the ground as her mother, Nur Hassan, recounted in hushed tones how they and their neighbours were herded into a room by soldiers who then dragged her daughter away and gang-raped her until she lost consciousness.

"Before this happened she was engaged to be married and everything was perfect, but the boy no longer wants to go through with it," she said.

After escaping slaughter, rape and starvation at the hands of Burmese soldiers, women and girls, who make up just over half of the population in the destitute tent city, and children in particular, still face serious threats.

Benjamin Steinlechner, a Unicef spokesman, said: "Adolescent girls and boys are particularly vulnerable to multiple risks in the camps - child labour, forced labour, trafficking, gender-based violence and early marriage."

Unicef, the United Nations organisation providing relief to children and mothers, has set up 515 adolescent groups where social workers are teaching around 28,000 young people how to spot the warning signs of exploitation.

At a group meeting last week in the Balukhali area of the camp, teenage girls spoke of their fears about being unprotected at night in makeshift tents built with bamboo and plastic sheeting.

Dangers lurk across the dusty, congested lanes of the world's fastest-growing refugee camp, where it is easy to become disorientated and easy prey for traffickers.

The IOM has said it is already aware of cases of Rohingya refugees being trafficked overseas.

Abdul Khalek (55) believes his daughter Senuara (18) was trafficked to India after losing her way back from one of the camp's health centres.

"She was forced into a car by a people smuggler," said Mr Khalek, adding that he had since heard from a former neighbour living in the Indian city of Kolkata that Senuara had been arrested crossing the border and was in jail in India.

Her husband, Ali Hossein (22) said she was targeted by a known Rohingya "broker" who wanted to sell her. "The man's parents threatened me when I tried to get his number," he said.

Unicef and IOM are following up the cases of Sadia and Ayesha, whose names have been changed to protect their identity.

After the initial chaos of rushing to meet urgent needs for food, shelter and healthcare, aid groups are turning their attention to spotting the signs of invisible exploitation, including domestic slavery.

Begum Zanahar, a mother of five, lost two of her daughters in the scramble to escape the military onslaught of their village Lambaguna in the Akyab district of Burma's Arakan region in late August. The youngest, Humaira (12) was reunited with her family, but Zanahar discovered recently that the eldest, Sofaira (15), was being kept by their former neighbours in Cox's Bazar to work as their nanny.

"I spoke to my daughter and she said they were making her do household chores and not letting her go," she said through tears.

"We know these people from our village and they are very wealthy, but when I called the husband to ask for my daughter back he said she was happy there and he hung up the phone.

"Now he won't pick up and I don't know what to do. There is nobody to help me."


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