Mahmood Husoon, 66, a father who lost contact with his 17 year-old son (Eimar Husoon), shows his son’s photo at a camp outside the city of Sittwe in Myanmar’s Rakhine state on Thursday. (AFP)
SITTWE, Myanmar: A generation of young Rohingya Muslims are disappearing on boats to escape persecution and despair in Myanmar, leaving frantic parents behind clutching on to little more than photographs and fading hope that their children are safe.
Fragments of news of the boat people crisis gripping Southeast Asia has filtered into Ohn Daw Gyi displacement camp on the fringes of the Rakhine state capital Sittwe in western Myanmar, stirring panic among families from the stateless Rohingya minority.
Tun Hla Shwe’s 19-year-old daughter and her two small children have been missing on the seas for more than two months.
“We heard about the stranded boats. Some people said the crew throw people into the sea if they die. They do it if children die. When I heard about it, I thought that my two grandchildren may die,” he told AFP of the infants, aged two and four.
“They cannot even stand it if they don’t have a snack every five minutes. It has been more than two months. If they don’t eat anything they will die,” he said, breaking into sobs.
Tens of thousands have taken to the sea in recent years from Myanmar and Bangladesh, risking everything with people smugglers for the chance of a better future in Malaysia and beyond. It is the largest regional exodus since Vietnamese fled in droves following the end of the Vietnam war.
But unwanted at home, they often encounter exploitation abroad, a trail of misery facilitated by a web of traffickers.
Many are Rohingya in Buddhist-majority Myanmar fleeing discrimination, poverty and the threat of violence in Rakhine state, where communal bloodshed and waves of arson attacks swept tens of thousands from their homes three years ago.
The displaced now live in camps in scrubland currently baking under a tropical sun and soon to bear the brunt of another monsoon season.
The Rohingya are not recognized in Myanmar where they are largely viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, denied citizenship status by the government, and face a raft of restrictions on their movement and family size.
As AFP spoke to relatives of migrants in a makeshift bamboo camp teashop, a queue of anguished families formed saying that had no idea what fate had befallen loved ones swept into a vast and lucrative people-smuggling chain stretching across Southeast Asia.
Many were clutching precious photographs of the missing, protected in plastic wrapping.
In one picture two teenage boys in matching green football strips posed solemnly in front of their bamboo hut. Another showed a young woman dressed for a special occasion in her finest sequined outfit. All of the dozen or so family members and friends of migrants who approached AFP were worried about missing young people, aged between 17 and their early 20s, a sign that a whole generation are fleeing.
Many were just children when unrest in Rakhine in 2012 forced them from their homes in and around Sittwe and into the sprawling camps that now house some 140,000 people.
The makeshift tents and emergency shelters have made way for sturdier bamboo huts, internationally-funded schools and modest grocery shops.
But the settlements remain bleak, with little prospect of education or jobs for those reaching adulthood under the restrictions that govern even basic aspects of daily life.
Mahmood Husoon said his 17-year-old son Eimar slipped away from home a month and a half ago without telling his family, but his reasons for leaving were less of a mystery.
“It is difficult to make a living here. He might have been angry,” said Husoon, showing Eimar smiling with a friend in a blurred picture on his battered old mobile phone. For many of the parents, the loss of their children has exacerbated the agony of the isolation they already face in the camps.