Al Jazeera English

Brides and Brothels: The Rohingya Trade









TEXT: “This program contains distressing scenes. Viewer discretion is advised.”



[101 EAST]



STEVE CHAO:  Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims escaped the military crackdown in Myanmar…

Most of them women and girls...fleeing violence and rape. They hoped to find refuge in Bangladesh. Instead they’re living in fear…



JOHARA: “I live in terror now. Sometimes so much that I can’t even speak.”


STEVE CHAO:  Trapped in these refugee camps...girls are being exploited and abused...

Married off when they’re only children…Or trafficked into brothels.  




PIMP: “Our customers prefer Rohingya girls who have just arrived and also very young girls.”


STEVE CHAO: I’m Steve Chao. On this episode of 101 East we investigate the precarious future faced by women who have already lost so much.








KARISHMA VYAS: In the world’s largest refugee camp...surrounded by misery….a moment of joy. These women have escaped mass murder in Myanmar…


And spent months scrambling for aid in these Bangladeshi camps. But today they have a reason to celebrate…Their cousin Fatima is getting married.

But the young bride is refusing to join in...For hours she’s been hiding in the next room….quiet and withdrawn.




FAMILY FRIEND: “What are you so sad about? Tell me whatever you want. I’ll get whatever you want from the market.”


KARISHMA VYAS: Tomorrow she’ll be a married with her new husband and in-laws. She’s 15-years-old.




FATIMA: “ I feel very sad, I feel like crying. How do I live without my parents?”



KARISHMA VYAS: The marriage was arranged a month ago after the groom’s parents came to see Fatima’s father. He says he agreed to the match even though she’s underage... because he’ll have one less mouth to feed.




DIL MOHAMMAD, FATIMA’S FATHER: “When she’s married there’ll be less burden on me, because we need to buy her clothes and other things. It’s not necessary for a girl to be 18. I have to get her married whether she is 15, 17, 18. There’s no benefit in keeping girls. According to Islamic law, whenever you find the right partner, and God is willing, it’s better to get them married early.”




KARISHMA VYAS: Even though child marriage is common amongst Rohingya Muslims, Fatima wanted to wait.



FATIMA: “They didn’t ask me and I didn’t say anything. But whatever decision they make I have to follow. I can’t go against it, I can’t say ‘no’. I feel really sad. How can I go to someone else’s house and live my life? I’m going to miss my family.”



KARISHMA VYAS: In the space of just a few months Fatima has lost almost everything she cares for...including her home in Myanmar.




FATIMA: “I used to love hanging out with my friends, putting on make-up, shopping for clothes, and eating. We’d chat with friends and family, laugh, and enjoy ourselves.”



KARISHMA VYAS: But in August soldiers from the Myanmar military came to her village...and suddenly everything changed.



FATIMA: “For three hours they were shooting. We were praying and reading the Quran when that happened. All the men went out to protect us. We were so scared and crying. They arrested and tortured people. They even raped women. They didn’t rape us, but if we hadn’t run, they would have. In the village to the east of ours, the women didn’t run, so they raped and killed them.” 


KARISHMA VYAS: The UN has called the violence a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’….an allegation the Myanmar government rejects.

But Fatima says many of her friends and relatives are still missing….after more than 50 people were gunned down in her village.




FATIMA: “I don’t know if they survived. They didn’t come with us. So I don’t know where they are. I don’t know anything but I’m trying to find out.”



KARISHMA VYAS: Since arriving in Bangladesh Fatima’s only comfort has been her family...but now she’s going to lose them too. She has never met her future husband. The only advice her aunt can give her on the eve of her wedding is to be an obedient wife.



FATIMA’S AUNT: “Pray five times a day and read the Quran. Wake up early in the morning so that other people will not criticise you. Take care of your husband, listen to him.”




KARISHMA VYAS: These are words of little comfort to Fatima. Her life is about to change forever, whether she’s ready or not.







KARISHMA VYAS: It’s the morning of the wedding, and preparations are in full swing.


FATIMA’S RELATIVE: “Where’s the parsley? Parsley. Come here and get the parsley.”



KARISHMA VYAS: The groom, Rashid Ullah, is getting ready for the big day...He says he doesn’t know a lot about his future wife...but it doesn’t bother him that she’s underage.



RASHID ULLAH: “I haven’t seen Fatima. My parents went to see her, I didn’t.  They liked her. If they like her then I like her too. I have to respect their decision. I heard she behaves well and that she prays five times a day. I like that.”




KARISHMA VYAS: But across the camp at Fatima’s house ….there’s chaos.



FATIMA: “Why are you sending me to someone else’s house, mum?”


KARISHMA VYAS PTC: “Fatima has been getting more and more upset the

closer we get to the actual ceremony and now she’s completely broken down.”



FATIMA: “Please don’t send me to my in-law’s.”


KARISHMA VYAS: With just hours to go, her father has had enough.



DIL MOHAMMAD, FATIMA’S FATHER: “ Shut up! Where is she? Huh! Huh! Guests are coming and you’re crying. You should be praying. This is nonsense.”



KARISHMA VYAS: Friends and family have arrived to congratulate the bride and help her get ready….



FATIMA: “Mum, where are you sending me?”




KARISHMA VYAS:  But Fatima is inconsolable.



VOX POP: “Don’t you dare argue with me. It’ll turn ugly.”


KARISHMA VYAS: Around her, family members are fighting about who will keep her wedding make-up….


VOX POP: “Take those away!


KARISHMA VYAS: Meanwhile...Fatima’s sobs are ignored. Finally it’s time for her to go….


VOX POP: “Don’t cry, it’s enough. Don’t cry.”



KARISHMA VYAS: Fatima is being taken by her future father-in-law to his home for the wedding. He’s the one who chose her. He says, he and his wife are getting older and they need help around the house.




AZIZAR RAHMAN, FATIMA’S FATHER-IN-LAW: “We don’t have anyone to help take care of us. We’ve lost our other son and daughter-in-law. I had to escape without them. If we have another daughter-in-law, she can help and take care of us.”


KARISHMA VYAS: As soon as Fatima arrives at the house, the ceremony begins.



IMAM: -“ Do you agree to this marriage?”

Fatima: I agree.”

Imam: “No, you have to say the word “Nikah” and “I agree to this nikah (marriage)”.

Fatima: “I agree to this nikah.”




KARISHMA VYAS: Fatima’s husband is on the other side of the wall sitting with his relatives. He and Fatima still haven’t see each other.




IMAM: “Do you agree to marry this girl Fatima?”

RASHID ULLAH: “God willing, I do.”



KARISHMA VYAS: Fatima did not want this marriage...but her father insists its for her own good.



DIL MOHAMMAD, FATIMA’S FATHER: -“The camps here are so crowded. As parents we feel it’s safer for our girls to get married quickly to avoid any kind of incidents. I’m afraid of the boys. You never know what could happen. They might take my daughter away and that would be shameful for me.”



KARISHMA VYAS: These fears are very real for those living in these sprawling refugee settlements. The camps are a maze that stretch for as far as the eye can see. Almost a million people are crammed in here, and it’s easy for girls to simply vanish. Seventeen-year-old Johara did.



AISHA, JOHARA’S MOTHER: “I keep thinking about what happened, how I couldn’t find her. It’s enough to drive you crazy.”



KARISHMA VYAS: Johara’s mother says they arrived here last August after their village was burned down by the Myanmar military. Her husband had abandoned them years before. In the camp they were befriended by a Rohingya woman who had lived here for years. She offered to show Johara around.



AISHA, JOHARA’S MOTHER: “She took my daughter and kept her overnight. The next day I was trying to get information on her whereabouts. She promised to send her back but she didn’t. So I went to look for her. But the woman refused to tell me where she was. Maybe she had already gone home.”



KARISHMA VYAS: But that’s not what happened.



JOHARA, KIDNAPPING VICTIM: “They put me in another room. They blindfolded me and bound my mouth. I was wearing earrings and a ring from Myanmar which my mother had given me. They wanted my jewelry, and when I resisted they beat me.”



KARISHMA VYAS: Johara says she was tied up and starved for five days. Eventually two women took her out of the hut….And forced her into a rickshaw.




JOHARA, KIDNAPING VICTIM: “The driver asked me where I was going. I said, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere. I’m new here and these people have kidnapped me and stolen my things’.”



KARISHMA VYAS: The driver then overheard one of the women talking on the phone. She was arranging to sell Johara. When the teenager started sobbing and attracting attention, the women panicked. They rushed her back to the house. Luckily, a few minutes later Johara’s mother returned.  



AISHA, JOHARA’S MOTHER: “I pushed the door open and I saw my daughter’s shoes inside. I told them ‘these belong to my daughter so she must be here’. They tried to attack me. I turned on my torch and saw the bottom of her dress under the door. I started shouting and crying, and then I just went in and took her. I was so afraid. They would’ve sold her if I hadn’t found her.



KARISHMA VYAS: That was just 10 days ago. Johara is still in shock.




JOHARA: -“I live in terror now. Sometimes so much that I can’t even speak. I never go out.”

KARISHMA VYAS: “Did you complain to the police? Were you able to get them to arrest these people?”

AISHA, JOHARA’S MOTHER: “We don’t have anyone to turn to and don’t know anything. We just try to stay in our hut. There’s nobody to help us. We’re afraid that those people will come back.”


 KARISHMA VYAS: Johara was lucky to escape. Many other girls taken by criminal gangs have ended up here in Cox’s Bazar. It’s a tourist town just a short drive from the camps...and it’s known for its thriving sex trade.



KARISHMA VYAS PTC: “I’ve found a sex worker who’s willing to talk to me but she has asked me to come to a very discreet location because she’s worried about the police.”




KARISHMA VYAS: I make my way through the back streets of Cox’s Bazar to meet two Rohingya girls who are sex workers. I knew their stories would be heartbreaking. But I didn’t know that one of them is just 14-years-old.




‘SHARIFA’, SEX WORKER: “I think about how I can study again. How can I be a good person?”



KARISHMA VYAS: To protect her identity we’ll call her ‘Sharifa’. She tells me that she arrived in Bangladesh eight months ago with her mother and siblings after her father was killed in Myanmar. They befriended a Rohingya woman who promised to find ‘Sharifa’ work as a maid. She didn’t realise the woman was a pimp.




‘SHARIFA’, SEX WORKER: “The first time she told me that I was going to someone’s house to clean. I said ‘Yes, I’ll go’. When I got there, there was a man, and I was afraid of him.”



KARISHMA VYAS: ‘Sharifa’ is too ashamed to say what happened next. But she tells me how it made her feel.



‘SHARIFA’, SEX WORKER: -“My head hurt and I was afraid that my family would find out. I felt so sad. I had so much pain in my heart.”



KARISHMA VYAS: ‘Sharifa’ says she has no option but to continue. She’s the only one supporting her family. She has about seven customers a week. They pay her pimp, who gives her around USD3 a customer.


‘SHARIFA’, SEX WORKER: -“She told me that when someone calls, I need to go where they want, and do whatever they say. I just do what they tell me. We don’t have any money or anything else. My mother and brother are both sick.”



KARISHMA VYAS: ‘Sharifa’ shows no emotion as we talk. Not even when she describes what happened to her when the Myanmar military came to her village.



‘SHARIFA’, SEX WORKER: -“ We had our hands tied behind our backs. They stripped a woman and took out one of her eyes. We just shut our eyes. At night I saw them stab a woman and her intestines fell out. Two of my sisters were murdered in front of us. We were crying. They were raped before being murdered.”



KARISHMA VYAS: ‘Sharifa’ fled to Bangladesh to escape this horror. Instead she ran straight into a life of abuse and exploitation. Her family and neighbors still think she works as a maid. She says she can never tell them the truth.


‘SHARIFA’, SEX WORKER: “If I’d told them, I think they would’ve killed me.”




KARISHMA VYAS: More and more Rohingya girls like ‘Sharifa’ are being forced or tricked into prostitution. Our investigation reveals that the recent influx of refugees from Myanmar has fueled the sex trade in Bangladesh. I wanted to meet the people profiting from this trade. After days of negotiation we convince a pimp to speak to us.




PIMP: “Business has definitely increased. After the latest arrivals of girls from Myanmar, 60 to 70 girls came to live in different cottages.”



KARISHMA VYAS: We meet him in a cheap hotel room in Cox’s Bazar. He has been working in the sex trade here for two years. Most of his customers are Bangladeshi businessmen, tourists and locals.



PIMP: “Our customers prefer Rohingya girls who have just  arrived and also very young girls. They like beautiful and presentable girls.”



KARISHMA VYAS: He won’t tell me his name…but he does tell me…in chilling detail… how he and his friends prey on Rohingya girls from the refugee camps.



PIMP: “We target girls who only have a single parent. Girls with only a father or a mother. We treat them to tea and snacks. Eventually we tell them that we can get them a job to support their family.”



KARISHMA VYAS: He says he doesn’t force the girls to become prostitutes... but he doesn’t tell them what the work is.



PIMP: “We tell the parents we can get their daughter a job as a garment worker, or a cook, or a maid. They come because they have no other option, but we don’t force them.”



KARISHMA VYAS: It’s common knowledge that pimps are trafficking girls out of the refugee camps.

Bangladeshi security forces have set up checkpoints, but even here there’s no shortage of people trying to profit from them.



PIMP: “If the police arrest the girls we have to pay them about $6. They also harass the girls when they’re with customers. They take money from both of them.”




KARISHMA VYAS: It’s been a few days since I last saw Fatima, the teenager who was forced to marry.


I’ve come back to the refugee camp to find out how she is.  


Her father has arranged for us to visit.



DIL MOHAMMAD, FATIMA’S FATHER: “I’m going to her in-law’s house. Do you want to come? Let’s go.”



KARISHMA VYAS: He hasn’t seen Fatima since the wedding.


She lives just a short walk away...but when we arrive no one answers .




DIL MOHAMMAD, FATIMA’S FATHER: -“Please tell my daughter’s mother-in-law to come to the door if she’s here….It’s locked.”



KARISHMA VYAS: Fatima’s in-laws knew we were coming...but they’ve locked the door….. from the inside.


We wait a long time…but it’s clear that they don’t want her to speak to us….


So we leave.


Her father hopes she’s OK.



DIL MOHAMMAD, FATIMA’S FATHER: “I think they’re happy. Why wouldn’t they be? Allah will make sure they’re happy. We did this to make them happy. But I’m upset because I came to see her and I couldn’t.”


KARISHMA VYAS: Fatima’s father has resigned her fate to God. All his daughter can do is hope that he’s made the right decision.



FATIMA: “We don’t have a choice in who we want to marry. We follow our parents. We’re afraid of our brothers and fathers.”



KARISHMA VYAS: After being kidnapped….Johara is also afraid for her life.




JOHARA: “I’m too scared to even sleep.”



KARISHMA VYAS: Fourteen-year-old ‘Sharifa’ says all she has left… is hope.




‘SHARIFA’: “I want a better life than this.”



KARISHMA VYAS: Two thirds of the Rohingya refugees are women and girls.


There are hundreds of thousands of them … each with their own story of survival…..


But instead of feeling compassion...there are those who see only the profit from their suffering.







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