David Bergman

In Bangladesh, human traffickers rely on silence and extortion

In Cox's Bazar, a hub for illegal migration, men often embark on dangerous boat journeys without telling their families

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh — In January 2014, 20-year-old Robiul Karim started on a journey he hoped would transform him from a poorly paid rickshaw driver in Bangladesh to a well-paid factory worker in Malaysia, and would give him the opportunity to send money home to his family.

His plan was to take a boat from a coastal village in Bangladesh to Thailand, where he would walk over the border into Malaysia and find work. Before leaving, Karim was optimistic about his prospects.

“I was told that I would not need to pay any money in advance, that I would have to give the $2,200 fee only after I got a job in Malaysia, and that the boat would be a nice steamer, not a fishing boat,” he recalled.

The only warning he was given was to not tell anyone that he was going — not even his family.

Sixteen months later, Karim is back in Bangladesh, never having set foot in Malaysia. His parents are now living with relatives, as they were forced to sell their home to rescue their son from traffickers based in jungle camps in Thailand.

Karim told his story a few weeks after the discovery of mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia. Officials believe that the graves contain the bodies of hundreds of migrants who died while traveling in boats from Bangladesh.

Most of those migrants likely began their journeys as Karim did, in the coastal city of Cox’s Bazar, a holiday destination where coves are full of fishing boats. Located in the southernmost tip of Bangladesh, the city is a launching pad from which human traffickers routinely smuggle migrants into Southeast Asia. Stories of missing men circulate in almost every village around Cox’s Bazar, and especially in the town of Teknaf. It is common for residents to approach journalists with pictures of missing relatives, unsure whether their family members are dead, in jail or someplace else.

Illegal migration has been happening for many years, but the number of people attempting this journey is on the rise. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in the first three months of 2015, about 25,000 people embarked on trips similar to Karim’s. That figure is twice as high as it has been over the same period of time for the past two years, and traffickers working this sea route are estimated by UNHCR to generate up to $100 million a year.

Unlike in previous years, traffickers are now relying on tricks and extortion. “Illegal trafficking to Malaysia has been going on for a long time, but years ago the traffickers were upfront and the families knew that a phone call would come and they would have to pay. Now deception is common,” said Stina Ljungdell, the UNHCR representative based in Bangladesh.

An abandoned migrant camp used by human traffickers in Malaysia's Bukit Wang Burma jungle.
Mohd Rasfan / AFP / Getty Images

Karim soon discovered that there was no luxury ship. He had been cajoled into going to Malaysia by a local man he knew only as Zahid who also persuaded two others from Karim’s village to go with them. After gathering one night at Kachubunia Ghat, a small fishing cove on the southern coast of Bangladesh, the four traveled overnight on a small fishing boat with 16 other people before they were transferred to a large cattle boat.

There Karim spent 28 days forced to sit on his knees with the sun bearing down as the boat, carrying 200 people, traveled through the Bay of Bengal and the Andean Sea. Like him, other passengers had arrived on small fishing boats. “Those who complained or cried were tied up with rope,” he said. In a month at sea, he saw 10 people die from dehydration or starvation. “Their bodies were tossed into the ocean.” UNHCR estimates that in 2014 alone, 750 people died at sea on this route.

On the boat, Karim was told he would only be released if he paid his captors $1,800. “They made us phone our families and get them to send money for our release. When I called my family, it was the first time they knew I left for Malaysia,” Karim said.

In a panic, Karim’s family sold their homestead and gave the money to the wife of the man who had organized the trip. As a reward for convincing three others to travel with him, Zahid, the organizer, did not have to pay for his own journey.

After the cattle boat landed in Thailand, survivors were detained in a jungle camp that housed more than 1,200 people and was guarded by eight armed men.

Once traffickers confirmed that Karim’s family had sent the money, he was given a yellow wristband. For the first time he became hopeful that he might soon be released and would be able to make it to Malaysia.

But before that could happen, Thai authorities swooped in and arrested him along with 400 others. Karim spent nine months in jail before the Bangladesh authorities organized his repatriation. He returned to his village three months ago.

The two friends that Karim traveled with avoided being arrested and successfully made their way to Malaysia. “They have got jobs and have started sending $250 back to their families, each month,” Karim said. However, after his experience, he says that he no longer dreams of working abroad. “After my ordeal, I am not jealous of my friends."

About half of those who risk the trips to Malaysia are, like Karim, Bangladeshi citizens. Some of them, like Karim’s friends, do succeed in getting there and finding work. However, many suffer traumatic experiences, others die from the brutal conditions of the trip, and others still are killed by traffickers.

[The traffickers] made us phone our families and get them to send money for our release. When I called my family, it was the first time they knew I left for Malaysia.

Robiul Karim

Most of Bangladesh’s migrants leave for economic reasons. Though the country’s economy grew by 6 percent in 2013, youth unemployment remains at nearly 10 percent and most salaries are far lower than what can be obtained abroad. Even so, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has said that there is sufficient work in Bangladesh. She recently described Bangaldeshis who risk the sea route as “mentally sick,” and accused them of “tainting” the country’s image.

There is a legal route for Bangladeshi citizens to obtain work in Malaysia, but since this system was implemented in 2013, just 7,845 Bangladeshis have found employment through it. In the first five months of this year, only 1,050 Bangladeshis went through the government to obtain jobs in Malaysia. “It is bureaucratic and difficult, and many young men think going by boat is easier for them,” said Sirajuddin Belal, a program manager at Young Power in Social Action, an organization that assists migrant workers who return from Thai jails. 

Stories of successful migration also encourage young men to try it. “Most villages if not families in this area have at least one person who has migrated to one country or the other and are sending money back to the family,” Ljungdell said.

Along with Bangladeshis, the other main group taking boats to Malaysia are the Rohingya, a Muslim minority based in the Rakhine state in Myanmar. In the last 25 years, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh to flee persecution from the military junta and Buddhist nationalists.

According to Ljungdell, there are three categories of Rohingyas leaving for Malaysia. There are those who come directly from Myanmar and use Bangladesh as a transit point, those already living legally in Bangladesh, and those living illegally in the country. Of these last two groups, around 33,000 registered refugees currently live under UNHCR protection in camps they can only leave with permission, and another 300,000 or so unregistered Rohingyas live in makeshift settlements surrounding the official camps.

Many choose to risk the dangerous journey for a better life. “The young registered Rohingya refugees residing in the two official camps see no future, they have limited education, are not allowed to work, and are willing to take risks for a brighter future,” Ljungdell said. She also added that the unregistered Rohingyas are much worse off, noting that they have no legal status, no legal protection, and only limited access to basic services. “So you can see how young unregistered men and women feel they have good reason to leave Bangladesh,” she said.

Rahamat Ullah in an informal camp for Rohingyas in the Kutupalong village in Cox's Bazar.
David Bergman

Rahamat Ullah, a Rohingya, lives in a small mud hut in an unregistered camp in Kutupalong near Cox’s Bazar. He came to Bangladesh seven years ago with his family. “We left as we were facing a lot of persecution by the military junta in Myanmar,” he said. “We were not allow to get married, people were being taken for forced labor, they didn’t allow us to do business, and prevented our religious activities.”

Rahamat said that one morning about seven months ago, his brother Badiul Alam, a day laborer, left to work in the paddy fields and never returned.

“We did not know what had happened to him,” Rahamat said. “He had never said that he wanted to go to Malaysia. He just did not come back at the end of the day. Then a couple of months later we received a call from him. He said that he was in a camp in Thailand, and we needed to send $2,100.”

The family scraped together the money by borrowing it and selling their belongings. “We were told that a man would come to us and collect the money. I met the man and gave it to him,” Rahamat said.

Since then, however, the family has not received word from Alam.

He now numbers amongst the hundreds, perhaps thousands of missing workers who have left Bangladesh by boat and not been heard from since.

In the village of Hariakhali Para, Abdur Rashid is among those who have lost a relative. Three years ago his 15-year-old son Abdullah went missing along with 21 other people from his village. Abdullah was still studying at the local secondary school at the time, as were seven others who disappeared.

“I have not spoken to my son since that day, though my family later heard that all 22 males had gone to Malaysia, willingly, to look for work,” the boy’s father said.

“Two men from the group came back to Bangladesh three months later and said that the boat was picked up by the border security force and that most men were shot dead,” he added.

Yet Rashid still thinks his son might be in prison in Myanmar.

He had never said that he wanted to go to Malaysia. He just did not come back at the end of the day. Then a couple of months later we received a call... he was in a camp in Thailand, and we needed to send $2,100.

Rahamat Ullah, on his missing brother

In and around Cox’s Bazar, it does not take much to get involved in human trafficking — just a small fishing boat that can transport migrant workers to a larger ship anchored in international waters, and a network of people to persuade young men that there is a better life to be had in Malaysia. Police claim that there are about 240 human traffickers working in the coastal areas of Bangladesh to smuggle people abroad. What is less clear, however, is how much the Bangladeshi traffickers know about or are involved with the extortion that is now part of the process.

It is also often claimed that Bangladesh’s law enforcement authorities either turn a blind eye to trafficking or are actively complicit in it, even taking a cut of the profits.

Belal, the Young Power in Social Action program manager, believes that at least some Bangladeshi officials are involved. “If they weren’t, the incidence of trafficking would reduce,” he said. Belal pointed out that unlike in Malaysia and Thailand, no police in Bangladesh had been arrested on charges related to human trafficking.

A 2014 U.S. State Department report on trafficking in the region also pointed toward state involvement. Over the previous year, “the alleged complicity of some Bangladeshi government officials and police officers in human trafficking remained a problem,” according to the report. Though it concluded that Bangladesh “is making significant efforts” to “comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” it hasn’t made much headway yet, and “only a small number of traffickers” have been convicted.

For the time being, however, the human trafficking industry is at a standstill in Cox’s Bazar. A week after the discovery of mass graves in Thailand, the Bangladesh police reported that three human traffickers were killed in a “gunfight” with police in Teknaf, and at least three other alleged traffickers were also killed in separate incidents. The details of these killings are unclear, but dozens of accused traffickers have been arrested in recent weeks, and others have gone into hiding.

The lull has brought peace to the area, yet many believe it is only temporary. “When things calm down, it will inevitably start up again,” a local journalist said. “It is just a matter of time. Too many people have their economic interests tied up with the illegal migration.” 

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