DHAKA—Amid a crackdown on illegal migration via sea routes, a number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh—mostly women and girls—are being given fake documents by suspected human traffickers at various locations across the country in order to get Bangladeshi passports and travel to countries where their relatives are currently living in better conditions.
Police investigators in the Bangladeshi capital said they detained members of one group suspected of sending of over 300 Rohingya to Malaysia and other destinations after training them to pretend to be Bangladeshi.
On May 10, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police [DMP] detective branch rescued 24 Rohingya, including one minor, at a house in the capital’s Khilkhet area and seized 54 Bangladeshi passports.
The DMP detective branch deputy commissioner Mokhlesur Rahman said they had arrested three people from Ramu in Cox’s Bazar at the house but five others escaped.
Mokhlesur said one of the arrested persons, Aiyub Mustakim, made a statement before a metropolitan magistrate detailing his involvement in arranging for over 300 Rohingya to be sent abroad in recent months.
The Special Branch of Bangladesh Police are now examining how the passports were issued, officials said.
Of the 54 Bangladeshi passports seized in Dhaka, Department of Immigration and Passport (DIP) officials have found that only four were issued in Cox’s Bazar, that three were issued before August 2017 and only one was issued with forged documents.
An official at the DIP said the government had stopped issuing birth registration certificates since August when Bangladesh saw a major influx of Rohingya fleeing persecution in their homeland in Myanmar as over 1 million were made refugees in Bangladesh, which provided all support except formal refugee status.
The police launched several investigations into cases where Bangladeshis were found to be linked to the training of Rohingya teenagers and women to pretend to be Bangladeshi nationals for the passport application process, while others engaged in issuing false authentication for the required documents, including national birth registration certificates required to apply for passports
A senior official from Rapid Action Battalion unit of Bangladesh Police, seeking anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information, said last month that most of the women are not required to pay any money and that instead, their connections in the destination country, like Saudi Arabia or Malaysia, arrange everything possible for their “safe travel” by air.
Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen in the last week of May said they are now strictly monitoring all those applying for passports.
The police headquarters could not provide statistics for how many Rohingya were arrested during their attempts to obtain Bangladeshi passports across the country, but law enforcement and intelligence agencies said they had foiled the travel plans of 15 Rohingya in Dhaka and the border locations of Rajshahi and Chuadanga since June 2018, and rescued 24 others who were undergoing training at a hideout in Dhaka.
The police and other law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, said that during their crackdown, more than 450 Rohingya were rescued while preparing to make the risky boat trip to the coast of Malaysia, while a dozen human traffickers or their associates were arrested alone in Cox’s Bazar since November 2018.
DIP officials have expressed concerns that a non-Bangladeshis securing a passport could pose a risk to national security, but said they found no immediate solution other than increasing monitoring on the applicants so that official documents are only issued to legitimate citizens.
On May 24, the International Organization for Migration said limited socio-economic opportunities drive thousands of Bangladeshis to look for opportunities abroad. But many are believed to fall into the hands of human trafficking networks, ending up in forced labor or other exploitative situations abroad. Trafficking in persons also occurs internally within Bangladesh.
The DIP in an internal letter to its officials across the country signed May 19 ordered them to document cases of Rohingya obtaining Bangladeshi passports and to take legal action against them.
Bangladesh’s home ministry security services division secretary Shahiduzzaman told Dhaka-based daily New Age in May that they “have received a number of complaints and investigations of those are underway.” He said, “Stern action will be taken if any of our officials are found to be involved.”
“We received two complaints from the intelligence agencies…Apart from those, Special Branch [of Police] are also examining more cases on how the [Rohingya] got passports,” said the home ministry official.
On May 22, a 20-year-old named Sabuya Akhter submitted her application to the regional passport office in the capital’s Agargaon and stated her present address as Savar in Dhaka and permanent address in Nandigram of the northern Bogura district.
During the initial screening, DIP assistant director Mehedi Hasan asked her to sing the national anthem, recite Bangladeshi poems and the names of the state dignitaries among others, and she was able to reply correctly to all.
However, she was found to be especially nervous when authorities were collecting her biometric information and photo, and this triggered further doubt.
She was quizzed again. “She replied to all of our questions but kept mum when I asked how she came from Savar,” said Mehedi, the complainant of the case, adding, “finally she admitted she is Rohingya.”
A Gazipur court lawyer Shahnaj Parvin certified her application as a notary public and claimed in the application that she has known of Sabuya for six years.
Sabuya also submitted a birth certificate issued on May 12 by the Zone-4 of Dhaka North City Corporation in Dhaka.
The Sher-e-Bangla Nagor police station investigation inspector Abul Kalam Azad said that both Sabuya and Shahnaj were arrested and sent to jail.
Shahnaj took 300 Bangladeshi Taka (US$3.56) for authenticating the documents and gave false information, said the police investigator.
He said they have arrested four more Rohingya women in similar cases in the last seven months.
On May 26, two Rohingya women from the Ukhiya refugee camp and three Bangladeshi citizens were detained in Durgapur administrative region in Rajshahi when they were found to be trying to send the women to Malaysia with Bangladeshi passports.
Abdul Motaleb, the officer-in-charge of Durgapur Police Station said both of them collected their Bangladeshi passports from Rajshahi regional passport offices and were trying to get to Malaysia where their husbands are.
On July 6, 2018, five Rohingya youths were detained at the Darshana border post in Chuadanga for trying to visit India with Bangladeshi passports.
On May 25, 2019, the police arrested two Rohingya women, both living in Kutupalong refugee camp, at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport moments before they were about to board a Kuwait Airlines flight using Bangladeshi passports. The arrested women intended to travel to Saudi Arabia.
On March 30, 2019, an armed police battalion at Dhaka airport held four more Rohingya just before they boarded a plane to Indonesia using Bangladeshi passports.
During interrogation, all of the detainees revealed they were originally residents of Maungdaw Township in Myanmar.
Following the latest influx since August 2017, the government took many measures, including a halt on issuing all birth certificates in Cox’s Bazar. However, officials said the Rohingya are collecting birth certificates from different districts in order to secure Bangladeshi passports in the future.
As well as acquiring forged documents through bribes, officials in Cox’s Bazar said the Rohingya are being trained by local families to pretend to be Bangladeshi. They submit applications which cite the names of false father and uncles.
The Cox’s Bazar passport office has withheld 280 applications since August 2017 on suspicious grounds.
Police investigators said they found Bangladeshi middlemen were imparting training on Rohingya women and bringing them to Dhaka from Cox’s Bazar refugee camps.
Bangladesh authorities estimate 738,805 new arrivals have come from Myanmar since August 25, 2017.
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