Bangladesh Police Arrest Eight in Trafficking Crackdown After Boat Tragedy

By Muktadir Rashid   13 February 2020

DHAKA—Bangladesh police have arrested eight people including Bangladeshis and Rohingyas in a fresh crackdown against human traffickers in Teknaf subdistrict of Cox’s Bazar following Tuesday’s sinking of a Malaysia-bound fishing trawler that killed 15 Rohingya women and children who had been living in camps in the district, which is home to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Cox’s Bazar deputy police chief Iqbal Hossain vowed that authorities would “get tough” against suspected human traffickers, and said more action would be taken in the coming days.

“We launched [the crackdown] in all upazilas [sub-districts] in the district yesterday [on Wednesday] and will continue,” Iqbal told The Irrawaddy.

The district police headquarters said on Thursday morning that at least 15 Rohingya refugees—one male, 11 women and three children—were killed and 110 were rescued early Tuesday after the fishing boat capsized off the coast of St. Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal en route to Malaysia from Cox’s Bazar.

Iqbal said that so far, four of the 15 bodies had been identified and returned to the families for burial.

He said the remaining bodies had been handed over to a national charity after DNA was collected from them for profiling.

Police investigators arrested Syed Alom, 28, Mohammad Aziz, 30, Mohammed Karim, 40, and Foyez Ahmed, 50, all residents of Noakhalipara in Baharchhara union of Teknaf; Saddam Hossain, 24, and Mohammed Rofik, 29, of Jumma Para; Mohamed Osman of Balukhali Rohingya camp; and Humayun Kabir, 23, of Bazarpara, in the district.

All eight suspects were named in a First Information Report (FIR) filed by Bangladesh Coast Guard contingent commander MS Islam with Teknaf police station on Wednesday.

In the FIR, the Coast Guard official stated that at least three fishing trawlers were used to transport Rohingyas to Malaysia from the Noakhalipara coast on Monday night, and one of them capsized due to being “overloaded”.

According to the FIR, the Rohingyas on board were from various Rohingya camps in Ukhia and Teknaf sub-districts.

The Prothom Alo reported on Wednesday that over 500 trafficking middlemen were active in the 34 Rohingya camps, many of them trying to lure Rohingya women to Malaysia with a promise of better living conditions.

Md Mahbub Alam Talukder, chief of the Cox’s Bazar Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), voiced concern over the situation, saying Rohingyas desperate to travel via the sea route were falling prey to “frauds” from host community.

He said his organization was trying to educate the Rohingya population of the dangers, while encouraging law enforcement to remain vigilant against traffickers.

Coast Guard officials said one of the survivors of Tuesday’s tragedy, Anowara of the Kutupalong camp in Ukhia, boarded the trawler with her three children hoping to join her husband, who lives in Malaysia.

Anowara lost two of her three children when the boat capsized and sank, the officials said.

Rohingya community leader NH Rabbi said the tragedy was the result of the “shutdown of networks, restrictions from every opportunity including of higher education, no liabilities, no justice, more discrimination by authorities and NGOs, less security and less income sources, no proper treatment and lack of accountability… among others. Wait and see [what happens] in the next six months.”

In a joint statement, two UN bodies—the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency— said they were closely liaising with Bangladeshi first responders.

“Irregular boat movements are not new to the Cox’s Bazar district, as both Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis risk the unsafe journey to travel abroad due to compelling circumstances. Recognizing the dangers they face at sea, the UN has been working with government authorities to raise awareness among refugees and local people on the risks they may face,” the statement said.

It said, “The UN is also supporting the strengthening of law enforcement capacities to address smuggling and trafficking and to protect those most at risk. Support is also available in the district to trafficking survivors.”

Dhaka-based daily newspaper Prothom Alo reported that in the past year, 796 Rohingyas and two Bangladeshis have been rescued from boats that ran into trouble while bound for Malaysia.

Cox’s Bazar District Court public prosecutor Faridul Alam told The Irrawaddy that despite the ongoing operations against people smugglers, demand for travel was high among Rohingya refugees trying to reach relatives in Malaysia.

They were using different routes to this end, said the public prosecutor, adding that at least 637 human trafficking cases had been filed between 2012 and January 2020.

Of those, 621 cases were pending trial, the court official said.

Iqbal Hossain, the deputy police chief, said authorities would launch a crackdown on human traffickers, adding that police had obtained the identities of suspected traffickers from survivors of previous incidents and other suspects now in custody.

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