Families torn asunder by Asian migrant boat crisis

LANGSA, Indonesia - A teenage son fleeing poverty on a perilous sea voyage, his relatives in a squalid refugee camp, and the cousin who made it to a marginally better life in Malaysia - the story of one Rohingya family illustrates the torment and dreams driving Asia's migrant boat crisis.

Muhammad Shorif, 16, came ashore in Indonesia with other Muslim Rohingya after a harrowing, month-long boat journey. They were some of the nearly 3,000 migrants who made it to land in the past week. Others never made it.

AFP tracked down his poverty-stricken family in a Bangladeshi camp and a relative who made the migrant boat voyage to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority, relatively affluent country that has become the favoured destination of many Rohingya, a persecuted minority in mainly Buddhist Myanmar.

The family's tale -- stretching over thousands of kilometres from Myanmar to gritty Bangladesh border towns, hidden Thai jungle camps and the modern Malaysian capital -- shows how persecution of the stateless Rohingya has spawned a lucrative trade in human misery and led to the current crisis.

While many have made it to land, often ill and severely malnourished, thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis are still thought to be stranded at sea after Thailand -- a key transit point -- cracked down on people-smuggling routes, prompting boats to abandon their human cargo.

'Poverty is everywhere'

Shorif was born in the Nayapara camp, a collection of shacks in the Cox's Bazar district of Bangladesh across the border from Myanmar's Rakhine state. His father, Abdur Rahman, described a suffocating existence with little hope for the future.

"Poverty is everywhere in the camp... There are hardly any jobs," he told AFP.

"We live in a two-room shack, the food that the authorities give us is inadequate. We can't send our children to school except the private schools which are too expensive for us to afford, we are not even allowed to venture out of the camp."

Rahman, aged around 40, said that he fled Myanmar with his own parents in 1992, after the government confiscated their farmland, a common tale among the Rohingya.

He married in the camp and has five daughters as well as Shorif, and desperately wanted his only son to stay.

"I told him that our agony would be over one day but he didn't believe me - there was nothing in the camp that would give him any reason for hope," said Rahman.

Shorif dreamed of going abroad and training to become a doctor, spurred on by his cousin through marriage, Syed Karim, who had made the risky sea journey.

Around a year ago, 27-year-old Karim followed the people-smuggling route across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

After arriving in Thailand, he trekked overland to Malaysia, which activists say has long turned a blind eye to Rohingya and other penniless migrants working informally in construction, agriculture and other sectors where demand for cheap labour is high.

It's not clear how Shorif got the $1,000 to pay for his trip. While his parents say they did not know he planned to go, the skinny teenager claimed his parents borrowed from relatives to fund the voyage.

The month-long journey proved hellish. Almost 600 migrants - Rohingya and Bangladeshis, most of whom are fleeing grinding poverty - were crammed together on a ship, under the threatening gaze of armed men.

The teenager said he had to sit with his legs pulled close to his chest, exposed to the beating sun during the day and cold at night, and did not dare move as the crew menaced and beat passengers.

"We couldn't sleep in the boat. If anyone dared lie down or stretch their legs, they were beaten up or kicked. They even said they would shoot us," he said, adding that he was hit several times.

'I'm sure he'll make it one day' 

As the boat neared the Malaysia-Indonesia maritime border, the captain abandoned ship, leaving the hapless migrants to navigate.

While Shorif did not arrive where he expected -- in Thailand, from where migrants typically cross from jungle camps to Malaysia -- he at least survived the journey, with his boat arriving in Indonesia's Aceh province.

Not everyone was so lucky. Six died of starvation or illness during the voyage and their bodies were thrown overboard, he said.

The journey has taken a heavy toll. Shorif, who had been a champion runner back home, walked with a limp and looked weak and underfed in a donated sports top as he talked to journalists in a camp hosting the migrants in Aceh.

Despite his ordeal, he still wants to reach Malaysia to join Karim, and is seeking help from the International Organisation for Migration.

"I can't lose hope," he said.

However, Karim does not paint a picture of an enviable life for Rohingya in Malaysia. After crossing from Thailand, he was detained for about four months before getting work at a market in Kuala Lumpur and now earns just 1,200 ringgit ($335) a month.

But for many Rohingya, described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, it still beats life in Myanmar or in a Bangladeshi refugee camp.

Karim said: "I talked to Shorif and told him not to worry, I am sure he'll make it one day to Malaysia."