I Got Smuggled Into a Rohingya Refugee Camp
Officially, I wasn't supposed to be there
The Myanmarese government hopes to prevent the international community from confronting the humanitarian crises of the Rohingya, Myanmar’s most-persecuted Muslim minority.
How? By blocking most foreigners from entering concentration, internment and refugee camps in the center of Rakhine State and Rohingya-majority cities in the north.
As the country becomes more accessible, however, government officials have allowed more journalists to tour the camps. But as a 19-year-old university researcher in Myanmar on a business visa, I failed to qualify.
“You need a journalist visa — from Naypyidaw, not here,” the official said, thumbing through my passport. “Students can’t go to the camps. You have a business visa. There’s no business there.”
My translator, who was a tour guide from a travel agency and seemed to dislike Muslims such as the Rohingya, looked on smugly. So I ditched him, called my friend in Thet Key Pyin Camp, and arranged for someone else to get me in.
Not just any someone. A smuggler.
The smuggler appeared at my hotel. He was short and shady. We negotiated a price and departed. He drove me away from the city center to the outskirts, where a military road lined on both sides by barracks carried us parallel to Thet Key Pyin.
My Rohingya friend, whom I had met on Facebook, appeared a mile down the road. A van that looked as though the Rohingya imported it from Woodstock circa 1969 awaited us. I climbed through the van’s sliding door, wiping my feet on the twin mats that greeted me. “Welcome!” they beamed in capital letters.
I wondered whether there were sillier ways to sneak past policemen and soldiers.
The van powered and rammed its way through flooded dirt roads, and my friend, the smuggler and I developed a system of infiltrating Thet Key Pyin that would only fail us once.
During my second of four journeys into the camps, a plainclothes policeman stopped our hippie van on the only paved road in Thet Key Pyin.
He opened the door, seated himself across from my friend, reached toward me and took my passport. It almost seemed to amuse him that I had the wrong visa. He asked the name of my hotel and the number of my passport, among other questions. He wrote down my answers in a notepad and photographed me and the van.
The policeman concluded our meeting with an apology. “This is a restricted area,” he said, “but only so that we can ensure foreigners’ safety. I’m sorry for this whole procedure.”
I wondered what, if anything, might endanger me in the camps. The most apparent danger to the Rohingya and their supporters, foreign and local, seemed to be the very policemen who claimed to protect them.
After apologizing, the policeman allowed us to leave. My friend and the smuggler, both insisting, “This never happened before,” returned me to my hotel. I called my girlfriend and told her what had happened.
“And you still want to go back?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said.