Many of the Rohingya Muslims who tried to flee Myanmar in search of a better life are paying off people smugglers and returning to the squalid camps they are confined to, in a country that doesn't recognise them.

Those who came back said the crews on human trafficking boats beat them with metal rods and engine chains when they asked for more food. Many were starving, surviving on three cups of water and two handfuls of rice a day for up to three months.

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Marmot Husein, 20, who was released from a human trafficking ship, stands with his family in front of his home at a refugee camp outside SittweSoe Zeya Tun/Reuters
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Sixteen-year-old Mohammed Savet, who was released from a boat, shows the scars he got from being hit by a human trafficker onboard the boatSoe Zeya Tun/Reuters
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Adulamin, 22, who was released from a human trafficking boat, sits in his home at a refugee camp outside SittweSoe Zeya Tun/Reuters

With the onset of the monsoon season and no prospects of travelling to Thailand, the captains cut their losses and accepted about a tenth of what they often charge. "They let people back for around $200 [£128] per body," said Kyaw Hla, a Rohingya community leader who helped bring back about 20 Rohingya.

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Kyaw Hla, a community leader, helped bring back about 20 Rohingya in two groupsSoe Zeya Tun/Reuters

One of them was Roshida, a 25-year-old widow, who left her camp and boarded the ship with two young sons and a baby daughter three months ago.

On board, she crouched for hours on end in stifling heat, her legs tightly pressed against the back of the woman in front of her. Beatings were common. She said she saw two dead people being thrown off another ship in the area. "Once, the crew was eating rice and my son started crying for more food. They got angry and burned his arm with a cigarette butt," said Roshida showing a pink, round scar on her son's arm.

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Roshida, a 25-year-old widow, shows her three-year-old son Heshot Ulah's cigarette burn scar on his armSoe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Be Be Asha, a 20-year-old woman who is eight months pregnant, was saved at the last minute by her husband and women around her after traffickers were about to throw her off the ship when she lost consciousness. She says she has not recovered from the 45-day ordeal and is worried about the unborn baby.

"I would like to go for a check-up to the clinic in the nearby village," she said. "But we don't even have enough money to get there."

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Be Be Asha, 20, eight months pregnant, was saved at the last minute by her husband and women around her after traffickers were about to throw her off the ship when she lost consciousnessSoe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Who are the Rohingya and why are they desperate to flee Myanmar?

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar, also known as Burma. They are concentrated in western Rakhine state, which is adjacent to Bangladesh. Their numbers have been estimated at about 1.3 million.

The UN says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Neither Bangladesh nor Myanmar recognises them as citizens. In Buddhist-majority Myanmar, even the name Rohingya is taboo. Myanmar officials refer to the group as "Bengalis" and insist they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though most have lived in the country for generations.

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Buddhist citizens of Myanmar living in Thailand hold anti-Rohingya banners as they gather outside the Myanmar embassy in BangkokChaiwat Subprasom/Reuters

In the last three years, attacks on Rohingya have left 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others into crowded camps just outside Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, where they live under abysmal, apartheid-like conditions, with little or no opportunities for work.

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Rescue workers clean debris from a neighbourhood that was burnt during violence between Rohingya Muslims and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in Sittwe, on 16 June 2012Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
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Three steps are all that remain of a mosque destroyed in 2012 during deadly clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar's Rakhine StateMinzayar/Reuters
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This picture, taken in October 2012, shows a policeman sitting behind a barbed wire fence blocking the entrance into the Aung Mingalar quarter of Sittwe, turned into a ghetto or a virtual prison for the families that have inhabited its narrow streets for generationsChristophe Archambault/AFP
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November 25, 2012: Rohingya men look out from a barbed wire fence used as a barrier to restrict travel on the outskirts of SittwePaula Bronstein/Getty Images
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Rohingya Muslims collect water next to a high wall topped by barbed wireYe Aung Thu/AFP
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Children stand behind barbed wire outside a hospital in a camp for Muslims, outside Sittwe on 13 May 2013Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

The people in the camp survive off rice distributed by charities. They have no access to adequate healthcare – nor proper education or jobs.

At least 120,000 have fled to sea, and an unknown number have died along the way.

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Christophe Archambault/AFP
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Rohingya migrant children receive biscuits from a volunteer at the port in JulokBeawiharta/Reuters
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A Rohingya migrant, who recently arrived in Indonesia by boat, bathes inside a temporary compound for refugeesBeawiharta/Reuters

Most of the refugees stranded on big boats in the Andaman Sea are believed to be victims of human traffickers, who entice them in Myanmar's Sittwe province and in Bangladesh with promises of passage to Malaysia and jobs once they land there.

But in reality, they are held for ransom, either on the trawlers or in jungle camps in Thailand and Malaysia. The victims then have to ask their relatives back home to give money to the smugglers in return for their freedom.

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Rohiakar, a Rohingya Muslim woman, shows a picture of her daughter Saywar Nuyar, 22, who is being held by a human traffickerSoe Zeya Tun/Reuters
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Adula Gawni, a Rohingya Muslim, shows a picture of his son Marmot Ismai, who left the refugee camp with others on a boat to Malaysia four month ago, only to phone his family 40 days later to tell them he had been kidnapped by traffickers who were demanding a ransomSoe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Brokers are eager to earn the $100 they receive from the ship's captain for each body delivered regardless of what happens after they leave, according to Maung Maung, a community leader who has researched trafficking in camps in and around Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. The brokers themselves are almost all Rohingya.

The captains know they can earn more money — thousands of dollars per person from family members — once they leave the country's terrestrial waters.

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Bangladeshi migrants stand near a barbed wire barrier at a shelter in Kuala Langsa, in Indonesia's Aceh ProvinceBeawiharta/Reuters

Those that have made out of Myanmar by boat face an uncertain future. Malaysia and Indonesia have made clear that their offer to house migrants is temporary. Both said their hospitality expires in one year. It is unclear what happens after that.

Foreign governments, right groups and activists say much more needs to be done, starting with addressing the root cause of the problem: Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya.

US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken says those fleeing Myanmar "are in despair and don't see a future when they are in internally displaced persons camps." He says they need to be moved back to their homes, provided for in terms of education, health care and opportunities, and freedom of movement.