DHAKA — Authorities in Bangladesh say they are stepping up patrols to thwart Rohingya refugees from risking dangerous boat journeys to Malaysia now that calmer seas have returned with the dry season.
“We are mobilizing our teams to prevent human trafficking,” said Lt. Col. Asaduz-Zaman Chowdhury, commanding officer of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) in the Teknaf region of Cox’s Bazar District, where the camps are located.
At least 150 Rohingya believed to have been preparing for the journey, mostly women and children, have been “rescued” in Teknaf since November, according to reports from the police, coast guard and BGB.
Eighteen alleged traffickers have also been arrested and three criminal cases filed accusing 16 of them, Cox’s Bazar police said.
On Nov. 9, the coast guard arrested six suspected traffickers and caught 33 Rohingya refugees from a fishing trawler headed for Malaysia in the Bay of Bengal.
Abul Kashem, executive director of Help Cox’s Bazar, which is working in the Rohingya camps, said refugees were desperate to reach Malaysia with the help of paid traffickers.
“The situation is alarming now,” he said.
Rohingya community leaders said the refugees, who are Muslim, were targeting Malaysia because they had relatives there and because it was a majority Muslim country.
“Many of their relatives are asking them to travel to Malaysia by any means,” said community leader Muhammad Ali.
More recently, BGB caught six Rohingya preparing to board a boat bound for Malaysia on Tuesday and another 22 on Sunday. They caught 30 on Friday and arrested two suspected traffickers.
Lt. Col. Chowdhury said those caught on Friday left their camps a week earlier and were staying in makeshift accommodations provided by the traffickers, whom they had paid between 50,000 takas ($596) and 100,000 takas ($1,192) to take them to Malaysia.
Two young women caught Friday told reporters that they were about to board their boat but changed their minds after seeing the sea and growing worried for their safety.
“My parents could not arrange my marriage, so I was planning to travel to Malaysia by sea because the Bangladeshi brother [the suspected trafficker] assured me he would arrange my wedding and provide money. But I retreated after seeing the danger of the sea,” said Nur Jahan Begum.
Shahena Akhter said her parents died in Myanmar when she was a child and afterwards lived with her uncle’s family.
“They could not arrange my marriage,” she said. “I am going to Malaysia for my marriage there.”
On Thursday police caught 20 Rohingya refugees from the camps during a raid on the home a suspected trafficker. Police said the refugees told investigators they had relatives in Malaysia who had already made the sea journey and found jobs.
The U.S. State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report said the Rohingya refugees were at high risk of trafficking because of their stateless status and inability to work legally in Bangladesh.
The report said Bangladesh was a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking and placed it on the department’s Tier 2 Watch List. It said the government was making strides to combat the problem but still “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”
The report adds: “In the recent past, some Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who traveled by boat to Southeast Asian countries were subjected to exploitation when they were unable to pay ransoms and were instead sold into forced labor.”
Bangladeshi officials say fewer refugees tried to flee the camps during the previous dry season because they were busier setting up their shelters, having just recently arrived in Bangladesh after fleeing a Myanmar military crackdown in Rakhine State in late 2017.
More than 720,000 Rohingya fled the crackdown for Bangladesh, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency.
Since October 2017, several dozen Rohingya women have also been caught in Cox’s Bazar and other districts trying to arrange passports through brokers to leave the country and sent back to the refugee camps.
Md Nikaruzzaman, executive officer of Cox’s Bazar’s Ukhia Sub-District, said local authorities have set up 11 security checkpoints around the camps and spoken to the refugees about the risks of being trafficked.
“We have also tightened our monitoring of the passport verification system” to thwart refugees trying to obtain Bangladesh passports for travel, he told The Irrawaddy.
In 2015, Bangladesh launched a crackdown on traffickers after authorities in neighboring Thailand discovered mass graves filled with the remains of Rohingya trafficking victims and caught boats overcrowded with thousands of them adrift at sea.