A Most Dangerous Journey: A WSJ Investigation

A Most Dangerous Journey: A WSJ Investigation

By Rachel Pannett

This account of a boat journey by a young couple from Myanmar offers a close-up look at a major issue facing the Asia-Pacific region today: the swelling tide of ships carrying refugees toward Australia. The trip is one of the longest, and most perilous, immigration journeys in the world. Yet the numbers keep rising, as more and more people from Asia’s poorest countries seek refuge in a nation many associate with freedom, wealth and a better life.

How to deal with the thousands of migrants on Asia’s seas will be a key dilemma for the next government in Australia, which heads to the polls on Saturday in a vote that will determine who leads the country.

Chapter One: Rising Tide

The rickety fishing boat lurched in the dark as big sea swells rose and fell around it. It was about 11 p.m. one night in late June.

Why Migrant Risked His Life For Perilous Journey

1:34The WSJ’s Rachel Pannett speaks with a migrant couple from Myanmar about why they chose to leave their country and risk their lives in search of a new home.

On the open wooden deck huddled the men, including a phone seller, a student, a pharmaceutical salesman – and Mohammad Ayas, 26 years old, according to passengers’ accounts.

In the tiny hold below, women and children from nine families sat with folded legs. There was no room to stretch out, the passengers said. The oldest among them was 88. The youngest was just a few months old. Ateka Bagom, 19 years old and Mr. Ayas’s wife, was eight months pregnant with their first child. She was four months pregnant when the couple left home.

There were nearly 100 passengers on board – mostly Muslim refugees from Myanmar who feared for their lives at home because of sectarian violence there and were seeking a new life in Australia. They were sick and weary from six days at sea. But a mobile-phone locator put the boat not far off the coast of Darwin, a natural-gas hub on Australia’s north coast, passengers recalled later.

Then the engine sputtered and died. Mr. Ayas said he was praying for their safe arrival in Australia. Moments later, the engine started again. And, he said, in the distance, two lights appeared, blinking yellow and red.

“Ship!” someone yelled.

The decrepit, weather-beaten boat started to chug in the rolling ocean toward what those on board hoped was a Coast Guard patrol.


The boat carrying the couple and their unborn child was one of hundreds that, of late, have traversed hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of miles in search of asylum and a new life in Australia.

They are filled with migrants from as far away as Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Through perilous seas, they run a gauntlet of pirates and smugglers accused of picking off boat people and selling them into slavery in Thailand or holding them hostage until family members pay for their release.

Associated Press
An asylum seeker boat near Christmas Island before capsizing in 2010

Some don’t make it. At least five people drowned and 106 were rescued when a boat sank near the Australian territory of Christmas Island in August, according to Australian maritime authorities. Another boat capsized near the island in December 2010 killing 48 people, mainly from Iraq and Iran.

Yet the number of boats continues to climb: 269 have reached Australia so far this year, with 18,888 people on board, more than in all of 2012, which was itself a record.

The surge has been so dramatic that asylum seekers have become a major issue in Australia’s national election on Sept. 7. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in July unveiled a radical plan to put migrants arriving by boat on Papua New Guinea or the tiny island of Nauru to be processed and resettled there.

His rival Tony Abbott, who leads in the polls, has proposed using the Australian navy to intercept asylum boats and forcibly return them to other countries’ waters.

Neither plan has done much to counter the country’s appeal for those determined to try: 44 boats carrying 3,057 passengers have reached Australia since mid-July.

“I heard Australia is a democracy where people have basic human rights and can study freely,” Mr. Ayas said in an interview.


A slim man with wavy black hair and dark stubble, Mr. Ayas grew up in the far reaches of western Myanmar, a place renowned for its harsh living conditions and poverty.

He was born into the country’s poor Muslim minority, which makes up about 5% of the population in the predominantly Buddhist country.

Some Myanmar Buddhists see these Rohingya, as they’re known, as illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The Buddhists also still resent what they see as preferential treatment that Muslims received while Myanmar was under British rule, when many Muslims were brought to the country from British India.

The Rohingya argue they’ve lived in Myanmar for generations and deserve equal status.

But laws drafted by Myanmar’s former military government in 1982 denied Rohingya basic liberties such as the right to hold passports or citizenship. Without those rights, their access to education is limited. So is their freedom to move around the country outside Rakhine state in western Myanmar, where most live.

Numerous human rights groups have tracked discrimination against Rohingya in recent years, including a series of reports by New York-based group Human Rights Watch that described mass arrests of Rohingya and destruction of Rohingya property.  Myanmar’s central government has denied specifically targeting Rohingya for ill treatment, though it repeats that Rohingya residents are not citizens and therefore do not enjoy all the same rights as other residents.

In contrast to the fortunes of many Rohingya, Mr. Ayas’s father was a successful small-businessman. Kobir Amad, 60, traveled regularly to neighboring Bangladesh to trade household goods and do odd jobs.

Rachel Pannett/The Wall Street Journal
Mohammad Ayas

The family owned lakes where they raised prawns and rice paddies which they leased to tenant workers, along with a small grocery store in Maungdaw, a township in Rakhine state, Mr. Ayas said.

Mr. Ayas lived with his parents and five siblings in a two-story wooden house in a small village near Maungdaw.

When he was a teenager, his father gave him a small motorcycle for the 20-minute ride to Maungdaw from his village. To pass the time, he’d watch Bollywood films at the local movie theater. He especially liked intricately woven family sagas and tales of people who worked their way up in the world.

At family events like weddings and birthdays, he would sometimes see his cousin, Ateka Bagom, a pretty young woman who spoke in a soft voice. She had black hair and a round face. She was shy, he remembered, but beautiful even as a girl.

He first met her soon after she was born, at the start of Myanmar’s rainy season in May 1994, when he was seven years old, and his mother urged him to stay in touch.

In 2006, Mr. Ayas said, his family bribed local authorities to let him graduate from the local high school —something many Rohingya say they are unable to do because they don’t have citizenship.

Win Myaing, a spokesman for Rakhine state, said that the government has allowed Rohingya to gain an education. “We do not prohibit them from attending school, university and matriculation exams,” he said.

He denied that local officials accept bribes from Rohingya in exchange for letting them attend school: “If officials are found guilty of corruption, this would be published as an official corruption case and made available to the public.”

A government-led commission studying the status of Rohingya said in a report released in April that bribery and corruption was common among local authorities, who often accepted payoffs from Rohingya for favorable treatment.

Mr. Ayas said he went on to study botany at Sittwe University, in the capital of Rakhine. He taught himself to speak English by reading the Oxford English Dictionary and practicing with friends over coffee and samosas at a tea shop, he recalled.

Mr. Ayas said he had to convince border police to let him travel from his village in western Myanmar to Sittwe to attend university. He said it took him six years to complete his undergraduate degree–twice as long as usual, as he regularly missed exams because Rohingya weren’t allowed to move freely around Rakhine state.

Sittwe University President Tin Maung Tun said the university does not prohibit Rohingya from studying there, though they need approval from border security forces to travel to Sittwe from other parts of Rakhine State to do so, he said.

In past years as many as 400 Rohingya studied at the university, he said, but this year there are none because of the sectarian conflict, which has made it harder for Rohingya to travel freely. Many have also lost their travel documents and student cards in the riots, he said, making it difficult to get past security checkpoints.

At university, Mr. Ayas said, Rohingya couldn’t use the school canteen or walk on the waterfront in the seaside town outside of certain limited hours.

Mr. Tin Maung Tun said all students were given equal access to university facilities such as the school canteen.

Mr. Ayas studied botany not because he was interested in plants but because it was assigned to him by officials at the university, he said.

He began scouring radio reports and television for details on life outside Myanmar, and discussed with friends countries that offered a new life for refugees such as Australia, the U.S., New Zealand and Switzerland.

He graduated in March last year. The family hired a camera to take pictures of him in his graduation gown, posing in gardens near the university and outside the sports grounds where he played volleyball. He was the first member of his family to graduate from college.

After the ceremony, he celebrated by going to see his favorite film: “Titanic.”

He planned to open a small shop in the same lane where his father had a grocery store in Maungdaw. But fresh trouble was brewing as sectarian violence erupted.


After years under a harsh military regime, Myanmar was opening up to the outside world for the first time in decades, with a new reformist government helmed mainly by former military officers elected in 2010.

Led by President Thein Sein, the government relaxed censorship of the press and social media, and loosened restrictions on public gatherings.

Although foreign leaders applauded those moves, and eased sanctions on Myanmar, the opening gave residents greater leeway to foment anti-Rohingya sentiment on websites and in public.

Hard-line Buddhist monks referred to minority Muslims as “dogs” and “parasites” in social media and advocated efforts to marginalize them. Clashes in Rakhine left more than 250,000 people displaced and more than 200 dead.

In July last year, Buddhist mobs looted and torched Mr. Ayas’s father’s store in Maungdaw, he said. His father, along with dozens of local men of his age, were rounded up by border security forces, seemingly at random, and thrown into prison, Mr. Ayas said.

AFP/Getty Images
A street with destroyed buildings after sectarian violence in Sittwe, June 2012

Those whose families could afford to pay big bribes to police were released, he said. For those that couldn’t, the men were never seen again, Mr. Ayas said.

Mr. Win Myaing, the state government spokesman, said, “I did not hear that about men in their 50s and 60s being arrested” in Maungdaw. He said many people who were displaced during that time still live in camps administered by international aid groups across the state, but their numbers have not been officially counted by the government.

The government-led report released in April detailed incidents of looting and torching. It found both Rohingya and Buddhists were responsible for bouts of violence last year that “deepened the climate of mistrust and blame.” The government imposed a curfew in several areas, including Maungdaw, that’s still in place today, to prevent riots from spreading, and government officials have said they have worked hard to maintain stability.  

The family paid police more than $5,000 to free his father from prison, according to Mr. Ayas. His father later fled to neighboring Bangladesh, fearing for his life, Mr. Ayas said.

Mr. Win Myaing denied that local officials accept bribes from Rohingya in exchange for letting them out of jail.

By early August last year, as Muslims around the world geared up for Eid al-Fitr – the four-day festival that marks the end of the Ramadan fast – Rakhine was in lockdown. A curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. was placed on Muslims.

Later that month, while Mr. Ayas was in Sittwe, violence broke out again. This time, Mr. Ayas said, Buddhist mobs doused local children in petrol and threw them onto bonfires. Local authorities denied the claims. Many among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority say Rohingya residents started some of the violence of the past year and in any event are living illegally in the country.

There was at least one good day, though: On Oct. 29, he wed his cousin, Ateka Bagom, in a modest affair attended only by members of their close family. Soon after the wedding, she became pregnant – and the young couple began planning their escape.

Early this year, Mr. Ayas said, he took his wife aside at his mother’s wooden home. Together they decided the risk of a perilous boat journey to Australia was worth it.

Rachel Pannett/The Wall Street Journal
Mohammad Ayas and Aketa Bagom

Others in the community had used agents who arranged boat transfers to other countries for a price ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

To raise money, the couple sold a stash of gold worth about $10,000 that they were given for their wedding and cashed in about $4,000 that Mr. Ayas’s father had given him to set up a shop.

Mr. Ayas said he found a local people-smuggling agent through friends and paid an initial $1,000 for two spots on a boat departing Maungdaw on March 3. It was bound for one of a number of remote Thai islands controlled by people-smugglers.

From there the couple would be plugged into a network of agents that would arrange onward passage to Australia for a few thousand dollars more, Mr. Ayas said he was told. All in, the journey from Myanmar would cost nearly $7,400, he said.

Efforts to identify and locate agents used by Mr. Ayas and other refugees heading to Australia were unsuccessful.

For Ms. Ateka, whose mother died when she was seven, there was little to leave behind in Myanmar.

View statistics on refugees applying for asylum

Her father left for Malaysia in search of a better life before she was born.

She was sent to live at an uncle’s house where she spent a joyless childhood carrying out chores to pay for her upkeep. She has a deep scar on her chin from when, as an 8-year-old, she fell while carrying a heavy bucket of water as part of her chores, according to an account given by Ms. Ateka, who speaks in a regional Rohingya dialect, and translated for The Wall Street Journal by her husband.

Among her few pleasures were sewing and fashion. She had dozens of colorful dresses, many of which they donated to charity as they prepared for the boat trip.

They packed their five best shirts and blouses, several pairs of pants and skirts, a few changes of underwear, and some packets of dried noodles and fruit juice into small rucksacks.

Over a meal of prawn curry a few weeks before departure, Mr. Ayas’s favorite dish, the pair said farewell to friends and family.

“Pray for me when I am gone. I will think of you often,” Mr. Ayas said he told his mother in their last conversation before leaving.

He said later: “If we stayed in Myanmar, we might die. If we went on the boat we might reach Australia, or die. It was under the order of God.”

In Chapter Two: Mr. Ayas and his wife come tantalizingly close to achieving their dream of reaching Australia.

[The Wall Street Journal compiled this account from dozens of interviews, including passengers, aid workers, government and police officials. It will run as a serialized story on asia.wsj.com over three days this week.]

–Celine Fernandez, I-Made Sentana, Shibani Mahtani, Myo Myo, Yayu Yuniar and Andreas Ismar contributed to this article.

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