In this journalistic essay from 2017, Keane Shum recounts interviewing Rohingya refugees for the UNHCR. As he pieces together the horrific conditions under which interviewees are transported by human smugglers across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, he reflects on his Chinese-Indonesian heritage and his family’s own history of crossing oceans in search of refuge.
My team and I interviewed hundreds of Rohingya who made this journey, and their testimonies were remarkably consistent and consistently terrifying. The only more inhumane crossing I have ever heard or read about is the Middle Passage, the part of the slave journey across the Atlantic that killed millions of Africans between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. To be clear, the Rohingya were not enslaved on ships – most at least started the journey voluntarily – but the conditions were so brutally coercive that they were arguably all victims of human trafficking.