A Rohingya refugee holds her child at a shop near their shelter in New Delhi. Photo: AFP/Sajjad Hussain

Traffickers in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and Bangladeshi refugee camps are luring young Rohingya women to India and selling them to widowers, divorcees and disabled men, often more than twice their age.

The women are being trafficked across India’s northern region — from the mountains of Kashmir to the plains of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. “Exploiting the desperation of the refugees, the traffickers pretend to be their well-wishers and boast of knowing several eligible Rohingya bachelors in India,” said Farrukh, a Rohingya refugee living in India.

“In many cases the trafficker happens to be a distant relative of a family who has returned from India,” he added. Farrukh said he rescued eight Rohingya girls from traffickers in two years in India.

“Everyone knows in my village that I am an honest and helpful person. My number is in several WhatsApp groups. So whenever a girl leaves her village for India, the villagers give her my number in case they get into some trouble,” he said.

Two Rohingya cousins recently managed to escape from their husbands’ homes in Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag district and reached Delhi. Cowering in the dark corner of a dingy hotel room in South-East Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area, Yasmeen, 20, and Fatima, 22, spoke of their ordeal after persuasion from community members.

The cousins said they were separated from their parents while fleeing violence in their village in Rakhine state in October 2016 and were lured to India by the promise of employment and a better life.

“At the time we had separated from our families and were desperate to leave the country, so we went with him even though we didn’t know him personally,” Fatima said. “After crossing the Naf River we reached Bangladesh and after several days of travel by bus and train we reached a village in Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag district. In the village we were forcefully married off in a hushed-up private wedding to two Kashmiris who were much older than us.

“Later we were told by our husbands that the trafficker got Rs55,000 (about US$844) for me and Rs80,000 for Yasmeen,” Fatima recalled. She said she became the second wife of Suleman Khan, a farmer. His first wife lived a few kilometers away from where she stayed and the first wife had a son with her husband who was in his twenties.

How two Rohingya women escaped

Initially the cousins were confined to their homes, but after some days they were asked to go to a nearby forest and collect wood early in the morning.

“In the bitter cold weather we had to leave home early in the morning for the forest. We are not used to that kind of climate and were not provided with enough clothing. At home we were treated like slaves and were beaten up daily over trivial matters by the in-laws,” Fatima said.

Yasmin said their husbands and in-laws even asked them not to mingle with the locals. “We didn’t even know their language. So the only talk we could have was among ourselves about once a month when we would meet at a village shop or on our way back from the forest,” Yasmin added.

One morning, when their husbands were not at home, the two ran away, taking some money with them. They traveled to Jammu and then to Uttar Pradesh. After staying in Uttar Pradesh for three months, they managed to reach the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner’s (UNHCR) office in Delhi and registered as refugees.

From the office they were sent to a Rohingya camp in Shaheen Bagh, where they now live with a distant relative in a makeshift shack. Back among their own people in Delhi now, the two are still scared to talk to outsiders. They worry their husbands might find them and take them back.

Restarting their lives

At the camp, community elders are worried about helping them restart their lives as both the women are married. “In our community women are not allowed to work outside of home. And until they get divorced from their husbands, we can’t even think of marrying them to others,” said Dil Mohammad, an elderly Rohingya.

“They could still stay here, but I expect them to remain modest and maintain a distance from unmarried boys and men in the camp,” he added.

Yasmeen and Fatima’s parents are in Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, but they are not sure if they want to go back to them. “I don’t want to become a burden for my parents by returning to them. I am not even sure whether they want me back. Only if they come here to take me back I will go, otherwise I will stay here and learn some work and continue with my life,” said Fatima.

India is home to roughly 20,000-40,000 Rohingya refugees. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says the new arrivals – the majority of whom are women and children — are at risk of human trafficking.

“When any such case is reported to the UNHCR, appropriate interventions are made through state mechanisms with support of our legal partner. The community is sensitized on trafficking issues as part of UNHCR’s prevention and response to gender-based violence,” said Ipshita Sengupta, a policy associate at UNHCR.

Rohingyas in Delhi say the prospect of marrying a Rohingya man in India is a big attraction for women and their parents in Rakhine state because marriage is a costly affair for the persecuted community in Myanmar.

“In Myanmar, if a Rohingya man wants to get married he has to spend at least 1.2 million kyats (about $900) in dowry and bribes to government officials. Second, to get the approval for marriage, one has to wait for several years,” said Sabber, a Rohingya refugee living in Delhi.

Increasing cases in India

According to Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of anti-trafficking organization Impulse NGO Network which works in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, cases of forced marriages of Rohingya girls are increasing in India. Her NGO is now working on reuniting 15 Rohingya girls in India with their families.

“We have been trying to locate the families of 15 Rohingya girls who were trafficked and sold in India for sexual slavery or for marriage six to eight years ago. The addresses they gave us are either incomplete or their parents have moved out from that place. So it is very difficult to reunite them with their parents,” Hasina said.

Meanwhile, members of an NGO have shown an interest in helping Yasmeen and Fatima get divorced from their husbands. They also say that because the men were involved in human trafficking, they could also be prosecuted.

“We will see what the legal implications of this case are. We will arrange lawyers who could meet the victims and take the case forward,” said the NGO representative on the condition of anonymity.

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