Between legal limbo and hope: The Rohingya’s silent struggle in Thailand
A Rohingya man who arrived in Thailand from Myanmar in 2020 looks out of a window where he lives in Bangkok. Wissarut Weerasopon/HaRDstories
A shady network of brokers is charging desperate Rohingya refugees tens of thousands of baht for a document that would let them stay legally in Thailand, an investigation by HaRDstories has found. Those who can’t pay are condemned to life beyond the protection of the law.
Sayeeda was 14 when she had to leave her hometown in Rakhine, Myanmar, for a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, a similar fate to millions of other Rohingyas subject to countless abuses and discrimination under the hands of the Myanmar authorities.
Life in the camp offered her food and lodging tents, but no education or job opportunity. Once she reached the age of 18, her family decided to send her to marry a Rohingya man living in Malaysia that she never met; the practice is common for many Rohingya families who believe their daughters would be better off married than languishing without any future in the refugee camp.
Sayeeda and her family were promised a “dowry” of 10 million kyat (about 4,700 USD) – in essence, a travel fee for her journey to Malaysia. Sayeeda soon hired a broker to smuggle her across the border; half of the fees were paid upfront, and the other half to be paid once she meets her future husband and collects the dowry.
From the camp in Cox’s Bazar, Sayeeda sailed on two legs of sea journeys to a port close to Yangon, from where she continued on foot through dense jungle for nearly a month, only to discover on the journey that the man in Malaysia had cancelled the marriage. There would be no dowry. Unable to pay the rest of the promised fees, Sayeeda was immediately held captive by the smugglers.
“I’d have been in deep trouble if I couldn’t repay the brokers,” Sayeeda recalled to HaRDstories through an interpreter.
She was frightened for a good reason. The fate of those who found themselves in Sayeeda’s situation and could not repay the debt to the smugglers is well known among the Rohingya community: men would be beaten and women raped, before the smugglers sell them to human traffickers, to be traded further as slave labour.
At this moment of life and death, Sayeeda connected with another Rohingya man in Yangon through a chat application. She shared her plight, and their online friendship soon blossomed into affection.
“I was fond of her, so I decided to let our families talk to each other. We loved each other and decided to stay together,” the man, Adul, told HaRDstories.
Adul eventually ransomed Sayeeda with his savings. The pair later left Yangon and, on one day in December 2022, crossed the border into the town of Mae Sot, in Thailand’s Tak province.
Sayeeda and Adul were among the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people who were forced to flee Myanmar due to escalating persecution in recent years. While many Thais are familiar with the images and news about the Rohingyas making their way to Malaysia and other destinations through their country, there is a lesser known community of Rohingya exiles within Thailand; some are stranded here by circumstances beyond their control, while others choose to remain in the kingdom rather than facing the uncertainty and dangers back home or elsewhere.
Rohingya exiles in Thailand, whether bound by necessity or choice, languish in a legal limbo. Without recognition or protection from Thai authorities, thousands are ensnared in a cycle of bribery and abuse, with no foreseeable resolution, migrant rights advocates told HaRDstories. But despite this darkness, many Rohingyas have not only survived but carved spaces of existence and belonging in this country they dare to call home.
‘It’s like we don’t exist’
On a recent morning, a halal restaurant in a village in Songkhla buzzed with diners, one of the many Muslim communities in the far south of Thailand. About 200 households live here, with three Rohingya families among them.
A vendor at the restaurant claimed, “The Rohingyas here are even wealthier than the Thais nowadays,” offering her judgement of her neighbours.
One of them lives just across the eatery, in a decrepit two-storey wooden house. A roti stall attached to a motorcycle parks in the front yard, next to dried betel palms on the ground. The house’s tenant is Eiberarhim, a 32-year-old Rohingya man who has spent the past two decades of his life in Thailand. Like other Rohingya residents in the village, Eiberarhim insists on using only his first name for the story, citing concerns of legal repercussions due to their undocumented status.
“When I was 12 [in 2003], there was a persecution of Rohingyas. Back then, my family was poor, so I decided to leave,” Eiberarhim spoke in fluent Thai.
Eiberarhim hails from Sittwe, a port city in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. His family wasn’t always poor, he said, recalling when they owned three fishing boats and had their own lands. They lost it all when the government’s repression against the Rohingyas began in the 1980s.
Forced out by poverty and fear of his life, Eiberarhim took a boat to Yangon, where he spent a year working as a welder and saved just enough to make his journey to his next eventual destination: Thailand.
“Thailand gave me the ability to live as a human more than Burma ever could,” Eiberarhim said.
He spent much of his savings on a broker to smuggle him to Mae Sot. Over the next six months, Eiberarhim took up a job in a grocery store in the border town, and paid another fee to be relocated to Bangkok. He worked in a construction site in the capital before moving again, this time to a village in the southern province of Songkhla, joining his older sister Shalida who’d also arrived there just a few months before him.
While some villagers harboured the impression that their Rohingya neighbours were amassing wealth, Eiberarhim painted a contrasting picture. He juggled multiple odd jobs—selling roti, welding, repairing motorcycles, hauling planks, and even serving as an interpreter for Myanmar suspects at a local courthouse. Every earned baht was stretched to provide for not only his immediate family but also to finance the perilous journey to smuggle his parents and younger sister out of Rakhine.
“My people were persecuted in Rakhine for such a long time. We really couldn’t survive there,” Eiberarhim said. “Burmese migrant workers may come here to get money, but we Rohingyas come here to seek a refuge for our lives.”
Eiberarhim and his family begin their work at 8 am. Eiberarhim’s father kneaded the roti dough in a plastic bowl, while his mother peeled off the betel palms in the front yard. Inside the house, Eiberarhim’s wife – who’s pregnant with his first child – was doing chores. Eiberarhim spoke on his phone and smiled as he ended the call. Someone just hired him for a welding job.
Apart from the daily workload, Eiberarhim said he also had to contend with routine injustice from the hands of Thai officials. By his own count, he had paid more than ten different bribes to law enforcement officials over the years because he lacked immigration paperwork. Eiberarhim said he had paid anything between 5,000 to 30,000 baht to the officials.
“Right now, my parents and I aren’t Burmese, but we aren’t Rohingya either, and we aren’t stateless. It’s like we don’t even exist,” Eiberarhim spoke of his frustration.
Historical records show that Rohingya Muslims have settled in what is present day Rakhine state since 1430. They were to be ruled under a succession of Burmese kings and conquerors until 1784.
After the Second World War came to a close, along with British colonial rule, an independent nation of Burma was born in 1948, with the Burmese emerging as the dominant ethnic group. The Burmese government refused to acknowledge the Rohingya as rightful citizens, and the exclusion was further sanctioned in 1982, when a law on citizenship formally named 135 ethnic groups as members of the Burmese nation – without the Rohingyas among them.
The racial tensions, rooted in centuries of history, broke out in a storm of violence in 2017, when military forces began what the United Nations later described as a “textbook” campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas. The violence left tens of thousands of Rohingya men, women, and children dead, and drove nearly a million to flee overseas.
Even upon escape to Thailand, the Rohingya’s plight was shadowed by their stateless identity. To gain legal status, they are required to present proof of nationality, a credential Myanmar authorities have long denied them, rendering their bid for a life away from persecution, mute and stymied.
Eiberarhim and other desperate Rohingyas found a costly option for documentation through brokers. These middlemen claimed access to a “special channel,” promising to secure proof of citizenship from the Myanmar Embassy in Thailand. Those who paid would also receive the kind of identification document that the embassy routinely issues for Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand, known by the migrant community as the “green passport,” which guarantees their legal stay in the kingdom.
But such a solution comes with a price tag far above the means of many Rohingyas, who already had barely enough to support themselves and their families. While Myanmar migrant workers generally pay their brokers
“The only thing I’d ask from the Thai government is this: please grant us permission to stay in Thailand,” Eiberarhim said. “We can look after and feed ourselves.”
The International Organization for Migration’s Bangkok office told HaRDstories that the absence of identification documents available to Rohingya people in Thailand is placing them under threats of being deported.
“For the majority of Rohingya embarking on irregular migration journeys, Thailand is considered a transit country to reach their intended destination. However, a considerable number of Myanmar Muslims, including Rohingya, are residing in communities in Thailand for decades without valid documents,” the agency said in an email.
“Rohingya residing in these communities are in highly insecure situations due to their irregular status and varying degrees of documentation, posing a constant risk of deportation.”
The sentiment is echoed by Siyeed Alam, leader of the Rohingya Association in Thailand, who said that obstacles to proof of citizenship are one of the biggest problems faced by the community of Rohingya here. Many are forced to spend up to 20,000 – 30,000 baht to secure the document through brokers, not to mention the routine bribes and “protection money” they had to pay to law enforcement officials.
“Some roti vendors have to pay 3,000 or 4,000 baht to the officials just so they can sell their food,” Siyeed said.
The Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok did not respond to inquiries from HaRDstories about its process of citizenship proof for Rohingyas.
Having spent a huge portion of his savings on getting the green passports for his parents, Eiberarhim is still unable to acquire an identification document for himself due to lack of funds. He said he earns about 10,000 baht a month; most of the money is spent on rent, utility bills, and food for his family.
“I can’t think about giving up,” Eiberarhim said. “I’m born with bad luck, and the bad luck will follow me until I die. All I ask for in life is good health. As long as my two hands still work, I won’t give up, no matter what’s waiting for me on the road ahead.”
Survival and culture shock
About 300 meters away from Eiberarhim’s house is where his sister, Shalida, lives with her husband and four daughters. Like her younger brother, Shalida conversed with a reporter in fluent Thai.
“When I was in Burma, I was never happy,” she said of her life. “We had to hide all the time. The situation only got worse over time.”
Shalida, who’s now 37, held an old photograph in her hand. She said it is the last photo she took with her classmates in school; shortly after the photo was taken, she decided to leave home because of the hardship she faced and made for Sittwe, before continuing on to Thailand. She was 17. Per her family’s arrangement, she married a distant relative ten years her senior, who was also a Rohingya living in Thailand at the time.
Three of their daughters are now in elementary and high school. The youngest child, who was napping in Shalida’s arm, just turned one recently. Shalida’s biggest dream is to see all of her children educated in Thailand.
“The Burmese government didn’t let us go to school, because they didn’t want us to use our brain and think for ourselves,” Shalida said. “I don’t expect that my children will get everything that Thai people have. I only hope that they’ll have the right to study, and the right to be what they want to be.”
All of her four children hold a “person without registration status” identification document – which is typically issued to members of ethnic groups that lack a status in Thailand’s census registration. Shalida and her husband once possessed a migrant worker ID, which already expired and cannot be renewed because they lack the money to pay the brokers. Her husband was once arrested for failing to produce a valid ID during inspection, and had to spend nearly 30 days in jail before his family gathered enough money to pay the local officials in exchange for his release.
“For Rohingyas, the only way is to pay. If you don’t pay, you don’t get to go home,” Shalida said.
But despite all of this, Shalida stressed that she loves Thailand and had no wish to move elsewhere. In Thailand, she said, at least there’s freedom that allows her to go out and about as she wishes, while Rohingyas in Myanmar who are caught trying to leave their township are often assaulted or extorted by local officials.
“Here, I took my family to the sea in Songkhla together. The children had so much fun,” Shalida said. “When I was in Myanmar, I never had a chance to go to the sea, even though we lived so close to the sea.”
As a housewife, Shalida keeps the house tidy and tends to her small garden of vegetables, which she sells in the village. Her neighbours often come by and bring her family fruits and food. Sometimes they called on her to help with some errands, to which she always says yes; Shalida said she wants to be on the good side with everyone in the village and avoid causing any undue attention to herself or her status.
“I know full well that this country isn’t mine,” Shalida said. “I’m here because I couldn’t live in my own homeland.”
Living in Thailand also gave her courage to socialize with other people, a stark contrast to the conservative Muslim culture followed by many Rohingyas back home that discourages women from speaking to strangers, taking up work, or even leaving their homes. Shalida recalled that when she was in Myanmar, she was never allowed to go anywhere on her own; even a short walk in the neighbourhood had to be accompanied by her parents.
One of the fondest experiences for her in Thailand was the celebration of Eid al-Adha, or known locally as Hari Raya, when Muslim families in the neighbourhood gather together. Rohingyas could never celebrate their faith so openly in Myanmar, she said.
“When I was fleeing Myanmar, all I thought was I just wanted to leave this place alive. I never imagined that my life would come this far. Right now, I don’t want anything more than seeing my children graduate with a college degree.”
Having a higher education degree would also set Shalida’s children on the pathway of acquiring Thai nationality, per a 2020 decree enacted by the Ministry of Interior Affairs for persons without citizenship in Thailand.
Neither acceptance nor denial
“People in my village know I’m one of the Rohingyas,” Eiberarhim said. “Some people don’t like us. They think we’re some kind of troublemaker, like we’re some creature who would bring them troubles.”
For Eiberarhim, the place in the village that makes him most at ease with himself is the house of his close friend, Dechudom. The two could be often found in the backyard, talking and laughing together on the stone benches after they got off from work.
“I’ve known him for three years now. We hang out so much that I feel like he’s not different from a Thai person,” Dechudom said of his Rohingya friend.
Another neighbour, a retired civil servant, has somewhat more reservations in his opinion. “I don’t mind having Rohingyas in our village. They just focus on making a living and never give us any problem,” he said. “But I’m just worried about the future. If a lot of them kept moving here, they might take work away from Thai people, and people in our own country wouldn’t have jobs.”
Although he had many unpleasant encounters with Thai officials who took advantage of his status to pocket some money for themselves, Eiberarhim said he wants to continue living in Thailand, because the Thai authorities are nowhere near the level of cruelty he’d have faced back home.
“In Myanmar, they’d just kill you. But here, no matter what happens, we can still negotiate,” Eiberarhim said. “I want to live here until the day I die, but I’d have to be paranoid all the time because I don’t have any identification papers.”
Eiberarhim said he had tried to contact the Myanmar Embassy and ask for clarification on his citizenship; while he knew that a recognition of his Myanmar citizenship would be impossible, Eiberarhim still hoped for an official rejection letter from the embassy. The refusal would squarely place him as a stateless individual, and qualify him for the “person without registration status” identity card. This would allow him to stay in Thailand without having to play a lifelong game of hide-and-seek with the authorities.
But the only way to achieve that is, as always, paying a large sum of money.
“If you want a letter of citizenship rejection from the Myanmar Embassy, you’d have to pay the brokers to get it for you,” he said.
Rights workers who assist the Rohingya community in Thailand say this situation traps the Rohingyas in the same cycle of working and saving up to pay the brokers, in exchange for the right to work in Thailand.
Due to their reliance on such shady arrangements, activists say, many Rohingyas are reluctant to speak out about the system or seek help from the authorities. Paying bribes is the only solution available to them, and the brokers – whether they are Thais, Myanmarese, or Rohingyas – are often seen as the only group of people who can provide them with a solution, albeit at a steep price.
It was 9 pm in the village where Eiberarhim lives. His father just came home from selling roti, while the women were still busy peeling the betel palms. But once everyone’s home, they’d always have dinner together.
“I was separated from my family when I was very young. It’s like eating rice without any flavour. Life was all about getting money and living for another day, there was no joy, because all I ever wanted was to be with my family,” Eiberarhim said. “Nowadays, all I want to do is share a meal together with my family.”
Lives in the shadow
Founded 18 years ago by a group of Rohingya residents away from home, the Rohingya Association in Thailand is a non-profit group that assists the Rohingyas who face difficulty with their lives in Thailand. The association also holds talks with officials, works with other civil society organisations, and campaigns for the rights of the Rohingyas.
Siyeed, the current chairman of the association, has been living in Thailand for 35 years. He’s married to a Thai wife, and a father to two children. Though his life in Thailand began as a roti vendor, he is now a businessman who trades in gems. With his life firmly established in comfort and security, Siyeed is dedicating his time to help other Rohingyas.
“The inability to prove one’s citizenship is the biggest problem for our people,” he said. “As a temporary measure, I just want Rohingyas to be able to get migrant worker ID cards first.”
By his own estimate, there are about 1,300 households of Rohingyas, or about 3,000 to 4,000 people, scattered across Thailand. He believes that two-thirds of them continue to lack any legal status, as they cannot acquire a proof of citizenship.
The International Organization for Migration’s office in Bangkok said it recorded almost 3,300 arrivals in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in the year of 2022, marking roughly a 290 per cent increase compared to around 850 arrivals in 2021.
“The increase in arrivals continues in 2023 – with nearly 2000 as of July, alone,” the IOM said in an email. “Rohingya travelling by boat and land risk their lives on dangerous journeys and face the threat of smuggling, trafficking and apprehension.”
Siwawong Sooktawee, a labour activist who works with Rohingya support groups, said the Thai authorities do not collect data on how many Rohingyas reside in Thailand, but his own estimate put the figure in the range of 5,000 to 10,000.
“The government is afraid that as soon as it conducts a survey, it’d amount to admitting to the existence of Rohingyas in Thailand.”
Siyeed said he once applied for a refugee status, but the attempt was unsuccessful because the Thai authorities forbid the UN’s refugee agency from granting refugee or asylum seeker status to Rohingyas in the kingdom. Unlike Malaysia, where the UNHCR is allowed to operate and provide assistance to the Rohingyas. Their role enabled the Rohingyas to obtain at least some sort of legal status and apply for a relocation to other countries.
HaRDstories has attempted to contact the UNHCR’s office in Thailand over multiple days for clarification, but did not receive any reply.
Siyeed said most of his daily work consists of meeting officials from various agencies, including the National Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, and the Ministry of Interior Affairs – yet no government department ever stepped forward as the main actor in helping the Rohingyas, since the plight of the Rohingyas was not included in any of the agencies’ policies.
He also helps out Rohingyas who found themselves as victims of human trafficking groups. To illustrate his point, Siyeed shows HaRDstories’ reporter images on his phone, which show messages apparently sent from a Rohingya man in Rakhine asking for help. His daughter was being held by human traffickers in Songkhla, he said, and she would not be released unless a ransom of 70,000 baht is paid.
“I want the Thai government to see us as humans, and let us live here as fellow human beings, according to the rights that we deserve,” Siyeed said.
Siyeed conceded that his years of campaigning has yet to produce any tangible result. Most Rohingyas cannot publicly participate in any call for changes either, due to their lack of legal status. The few who made a stand were often intimidated by security officials.
“Special Branch Police sometimes visited me at my house and asked me where I’m going, and what I’m planning to do. They have my phone number. They know all my plans,” Siyeed said.
Even the right to visit Rohingyas who are being detained in immigration jails all over the country is denied to him.
Sirawong, the labour advocate, said the policy of no visitation policy was decreed by the National Security Council, a powerful board of officials chaired by the Prime Minister himself. As a result, networks of social workers who assist the Rohingyas could only pass on necessities to those imprisoned through officials, with some exceptions, like the Sheik ul Islam Office, who is allowed to distribute food and medical aid directly to Rohingyas inside detention centres.
Siyeed said he’s most concerned about the possibility that some undocumented Rohingyas who fail to reach a negotiation with the police may end up in indefinite imprisonment or being deported to Myanmar.
“There’s no future for Rohingyas in Thailand,” Siyeed said. “They can only try to survive from one day to another.”
Hope for a new path
“Thailand is afraid that Rohingyas would arrive here in droves, that’s why we chose to enact no policy at all to address the issues faced by the Rohingyas,” Siwawong explained the reluctance from Thai authorities in finding a practical solution.
An independent scholar on international labour for the non-profit Migrant Working Group, Siwawong said the first waves of Rohingyas started to arrive in Thailand in 1993, along with other ethnic groups from Burma. Many Rohingyas masked their ethnic identity at the time and would often resort to identifying themselves as Muslim Burmese, which allowed them to settle and work in Thailand.
Immigration policy back then was also relatively lax in practice, Siwawong explained. It was only in the later years that enforcement was stepped up, eventually resulting in a national registration and permit system for migrant workers.
To crack down on illegal entries to the kingdom, the government also enacted a requirement for citizenship proof. Rohingyas who once enjoyed the status as migrant workers were forced to return to Myanmar in their elusive attempt to prove their citizenship.
Even as the Myanmar government refuses to acknowledge the Rohingyas as its citizens, Siwawong said certain officials admit to him frankly that they’d be willing to provide the certificates of identity to Rohingyas – on the condition that they make a payment through the brokers first.
Siwawong believes that more Rohingyas will likely make their way to Thailand, driven by the ongoing civil resistance and armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the opposition-led government in exile. But their journeys will also carry immense risks; if caught, officials may chalk them up as members of other ethnic groups in Myanmar and deport them back right away, even before human rights groups learn of the arrests.
However, Siwawong said there is some good news. He points to a government decree – which became effective in June 2020 – that empowers relevant authorities to grant a permission to remain in Thailand to migrant groups who cannot return to their homelands due to fears for their safety.
The order calls for a working committee, to be chaired by the National Police Commissioner and include representatives from the ministries of labour, foreign affairs, and social development, along with other experts appointed by the police commissioner.
Individuals who are under the committee’s review cannot be deported, and if they secure a permission to remain in Thailand, they will enjoy a fully legal status while the government attempts to facilitate their journeys onward to other countries.
But Siwawong is worried that even if the decree is implemented, the authorities may refuse to include the Rohingya in their deliberations, to deter them from making their way to Thailand and to maintain friendly relations with the Myanmar junta.
“Improvement to the situation looks likely, but will it arrive in time to solve the problems that Rohingyas are facing today?” he asked.
No matter what tomorrow brings
During his entire tenure as a Senator, Zakee Phithakkumpol said he has never heard his colleagues in the parliament discuss solutions for the Rohingyas or referred to them in any positive light.
Instead, he recalled, lawmakers were debating whether Rohingyas have any link to the ongoing separatist violence in southern Thailand – a baseless proposition not supported by any evidence, Zakee added.
“The only thing the Thai state has been doing is trying to make the issue of the Rohingyas disappear from the news, and keep it away from international attention,” said Zakee, who also serves in the Sheik ul Islam Office, one of the few agencies permitted to provide assistance to Rohingyas in immigration jails.
Zakee said there’s a lack of serious or sincere resolve to find solutions for the Rohingya community here. He pointed to an example during the administration of Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, when a series of Rohingya “death camps” run by human trafficking rings were uncovered in 2015. The discovery spurred a flurry of legal actions against many suspected human traffickers, but no dialogue for a long term solution was ever held.
The inaction meant that human trafficking networks were operating in southern Thailand and targeting Rohingyas headed for Malaysia once again, Zakee said.
“Rohingyas are an issue that the Thai state can’t admit to, but can’t make it go away either,” Zakee said. “They can only solve the problems as they go, on a case by case basis. Once the noise died down and no longer got the attention from the international community, the problems went on being hidden under the rug.”
Until solutions are found, the secret lives of Rohingyas in Thailand would have to go on, as is the case for Adul and Sayeeda – the couple introduced earlier in this story.
Unable to find jobs in Mae Sot, the Rohingya couple left for Bangkok in June. They are now renting a tiny room on one of the side streets in the capital’s downtown. Adul remained jobless, while Sayeeda recently gave birth to a child in August. Two lives became three, a family caught in the uncertainty that has no foreseeable answers.
“They [the Myanmar government] pressured us in every way,” Adul said. “We couldn’t study, we couldn’t work, we couldn’t even travel anywhere. Rohingyas were killed every day.”
He went on, “If I could choose, I’d go home. My family is there. It’s where I was born. But ever since I could remember, there was only cruelty and violence in Rakhine. The only happiness that I could recall was when I was living with my family.
“Today, I’m in Thailand. The people here show a lot of kindness and sympathy to me. People aren’t divided for their religions like in Myanmar. When my wife gave birth in the hospital, the doctors here helped us so much.”
Adul would often offer the same words of encouragement to his wife: “No matter what tomorrow brings, we’ll face it together.”
Translation from Thai by Teeranai Charuvastra
Editing by Fabian Drahmoune
Nathaphob Sungkate is a feature writer from Thailand focusing on human rights issues. His work is informed by a year spent in India. Nathaphob is committed to in-depth reporting to shed light on underrepresented stories.
Wissarut Weerasopon is a Thai documentary and news photographer. Since graduating with a photography degree from Pohchang Academy of Art in 2017 he has worked with major Thai publications such as National Geographic Thailand, Sarakadee Magazine and The Momentum.