In a desperate attempt to sneak into Thailand and cross over to Malaysia to seek asylum, many stateless Rohingya Muslim families from Myanmar’s Arakan state have booked seats on illegal ferries.
Over the past few years, during autumn and winter, when the sea is calmer, Rohingya men have regularly taken ferries operated by Bangladesh-based people smugglers to reach Thailand and then go overland to Malaysia to work illegally and support their families back home.
Now, however, many Rohingya men are planning to take their wives and children along. "With my brothers and my wives and our five children, we are set to take the boat for Thailand, with the hope that finally we will get shelter in Malaysia," Mr Faizullah, a cloth trader from a village near Maungdaw in Rakhine state told DW over the phone.
"Many other Rohingya families are also planning to flee Myanmar the same way. Persecution is increasing day by day. Life for all of us is extremely unsafe here."
Last month, the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by Rohingyas triggered an outbreak of ethnic violence that has killed at least 80 people so far.
Persecution reaches unprecedented levels
As the violence grinds on, persecution of the Rohingyas has increased to an unprecedented level.
Amnesty International has accused the Burmese security forces as well as ethnic Rakhine Buddhists of assault, rape and unlawful killings, as well as of looting Rohingya households.
Moreover, Rohingya sources from inside Myanmar said that thousands of young men had gone into hiding because Rohingya were being arrested on sight. Hundreds of boys and men are in detention.
"The security forces and Rakhine Buddhists have stalled most income-generating activities in Rohingya villages," Mr Faizullah said. "In many villages, Buddhists have stopped selling rice and other provisions to Rohingyas. Security forces and Buddhists are asking us to flee Myanmar. We shall starve to death or get killed here."
"With women and children the boat voyage for Thailand is dangerous," he added. "Yet we are taking the risk because we don't have any income. We hope Thailand will be sympathetic to us because we shall be with women and children. We are sure that Malaysia will grant us asylum on humanitarian grounds."
Nurul Islam, a Chittagong-based Rohingya rights activist said that many Rohingyas shared this view. "They are saying death at sea will be less painful than dying at the hands of the Rakhines and the security forces."
He also said Myanmar's border security force was encouraging Rohingyas to take the risky boat voyage in exchange for bribes worth 10,000 kyats (12 US dollars) per person.
Risky voyage to Malaysia
Mr Faizullah said he had already got in touch with a Bangladesh-based agent who would charge about three million kyats to take his family to Malaysia.
Kashem, an agent based in Bangladesh's Teknaf, said that he was planning to help at least nine Arakan-based Rohingya families reach Malaysia later this year, when the sea became calmer.
"Our boat will pick up those five families from a point on the Rakhine coast and take them to Thailand from where they will be taken to Malaysia overland. Some of these families failed to enter Bangladesh last month after they were turned back by Bangladesh border guards," Kashem, who has been in the illegal business for eight years, said.
Bangladesh is keeping to its stand not to allow new Rohingya refugees onto its territory. Last week, the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni even urged Myanmar's government to start the immediate repatriation of the 350,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh.
Chowdhury R. Abrar, who teaches international relations at Dhaka University, said Bangladesh should reopen its border to the Rohingyas who are fleeing Myanmar.
"The persistent refusals by the Bangladeshi authorities to admit the Rohingyas have left them with no other choice but to undertake this risky life-threatening voyage. It's horrifying to think what will happen to the men, women and children if the Thai authorities do not allow them access to the Thai shores."
Earlier this week, Colonel Manat Kongpan, who heads Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command, said his agency already had an intelligence input that Rohingyas would in increased numbers target Thailand this autumn and winter. He added that they would not be allowed to use Thai territory to go to Malaysia.
Author: Shaikh Azizur Rahman, Dhaka
Editor: Anne Thomas