AMPANG, Dec 20 — At 8am each day, a dark-skinned boy dressed in a worn Baju Melayu, torn pants and a skull cap will loiter at the busy bus stop across the Ampang Point Mall here, where commuters gather on their way to work.
With a blank expression, the boy, likely in his early teens, tirelessly approaches one commuter after another. Once he gains their attention, he clasps his hands together in a pleading gesture and begs for money.
Some give, others do not. But most relent when the boy points to his feet; his left foot is partially amputated. A rusty old pair of crutches helps the boy walk.
“I’m usually hesitant to give money because I think they end up giving it to the syndicates. But I can’t help but feel sorry since he’s crippled,” said a young professional Malay man who gave RM1 to the boy.
For at least three years now, the crippled boy and several other Rohingya children have plied the bustling commercial centres of Ampang seven days a week, begging commuters for change from early morning until midnight.
At night, after the children are done, around five of them gather at a less conspicuous location several hundred metres away from the commercial areas.
Around midnight, a man arrives in a first generation Proton Saga. They obediently hop in, and the car drives off.
Some Ampang residents told Malay Mail Online the children live in a house a few kilometres away from where they usually beg. Some believe the children are held captive by a syndicate, although it could not be determined if the claim is true.
Child rights groups have long raised concerns about the growing numbers of Rohingya children allegedly used by begging syndicates as part of a larger network of organised crime that includes more serious activities such as human and drug trafficking as well as prostitution.
Essentially rightless due to their statelessness, the Rohingyas and their children are easy targets for criminal syndicates.
Their plight is worsened as they are unable to secure refugee status in Malaysia, and the rights and protections that would accrue.
“They have two problems. First, they don’t have any identification or proper documentation… second, they are nationless.
“This is a problem because, for example, if a foreigner is arrested, [they] will have their respective embassies calling the authorities to check [on them],” Sharmila Sekaran, chairman of child rights advocacy group Voice of the Children, told Malay Mail Online recently.
Drug mules, prostitution
“When you’re not, when you’re stateless, there is no sort of ‘Big Brother’ looking over you. The result is then you can be exploited across the board, by the person of authority right down to the man on the street,” she said.
Sharmila explained that exploitation of Rohingya children by syndicates vary. Some are allegedly forced to be drug mules or beggars, while the girls are sold as prostitutes or child brides to Rohingya men.
Cases of Rohingya girls sold as child brides have been extensively reported.
“It can be sex, it can be trafficking of drugs or any illegal vice act. A lot of them end up being runners by gangs and how far a lot of them get sucked in depends (on the gangs),” she said.
In virtually all Rohingya child exploitation cases, the root cause is poverty.
Undocumented migrants cannot legally work in Malaysia, and their children are also not provided with healthcare or education by the state, which worsens their desperation.
While some are lucky enough to be employed illegally, the majority have no means to support their families. This gives syndicates—or gangs, in some cases—the opportunity to exploit the situation by either forcing the parents to “rent” or sell their children for income.
“Sometimes the parents are forced to let the children work for the syndicates because they have nowhere else to turn to for income.
“But you tell me, what can they do? The government does nothing to stop these syndicates,” a Rohingya community leader told Malay Mail Online on condition of anonymity.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ estimates, there are close to 150,000 Rohingyas in Malaysia, and only a third are registered.
The rest are undocumented, which make them easy target for exploitation by both corrupt authorities and criminal syndicates.
Rohingyas fleeing violent persecution back home in Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state also employ syndicates to smuggle them via sea and land into countries like Thailand and Malaysia, often paying about RM3,500 each.
Trauma and the circle of abuse
In transit, many reportedly end up in the hands of traffickers, who then hold them captive in detention camps along the Thai-Malaysian border where they are allegedly tortured and starved until their relatives ransom them for as much as RM7,000 each.
Children left orphaned when their parents die in detention camps are then trafficked to work for syndicates in Malaysia.
“For the unaccompanied children, it’s worse. There is no one to look after them so they’re virtually left at the mercy of these syndicates,” Sharmila said.
Child rights activists say Rohingya children recounting their experience of their journey to Malaysia often report traumatic experiences. For children subject to exploitation by syndicates, the trauma is often worse.
“We had this boy, he was once forced to beg for syndicates… he and two others managed to escape. From our interview, we can tell this kid was really smart, bright. But you sense that there was a lot of anger, especially when he was dealing with non-Muslim counsellors,” Tuan Noorhashini Tuan Omar, a social worker with at-risk children’s shelter Yayasan Chow Kit, told Malay Mail Online.
Noorhashini said workers at the foundation felt that the violence back in Myanmar, exacerbated by the abuse at the hands of an allegedly non-Muslim syndicate leader who held him and two other Rohingya children captive, have left a lasting impact on his mind.
Sharmila, on the other hand, said the abuses these children endure could perpetuate a downward spiral where they could end up abusing others or themselves through substance addiction.
“If these children are actually out working at night and not studying, they’re not getting the right kind of nurturing and intellectual stimulation… it means that their brains are growing insufficiently.
“There are studies that show that those who are either neglected… the brain growth is stunted. Therefore they are more susceptible to become abusers themselves,” she said.