COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH – The world’s biggest refugee camp revolves in a complex human trafficking network involving high-seas extortion goons, corrupt officials and drug lords.
In this camp, groups of young men, women and children riding around on rickshaws hoping to escape the misery of life with other members of their stateless Rohingya group who are crowded into shanties in Bangladesh.
Nineteen-year-old Enamul Hasan was aboard one of the rickshaws early this year, taken to the coast and then by small boat into a bigger fishing vessel anchored in the Bay of Bengal where he joined hundreds of other Rohingya hoping to reach Malaysia.
“I was told I’d get the opportunity to finish my studies and earn money to get my family out of poverty,” Hasan told AFP, recounting the promises of the low-level smuggler in the camp who was his main contact for organising the trip.
“I will never forget what I’ve been through. The traffickers, the brutality of the sailors… I’d never do it again,” Hasan said.
AFP spoke to Hasan as part of an in-depth investigation into the people smuggling network that included dozens of interviews with refugees in Bangladesh and Indonesia, where hundreds arrived this year after months at sea.
AFP also interviewed fishermen involved in the trade, police, government officials, community leaders and aid workers.
The investigation revealed a sophisticated and always-evolving operation worth many millions of dollars in which members of the Rohingya community play a key role in trafficking their own people.
Thai-registered fishing boats capable of holding 1,000 people, satellite phones, a mini-armada of smaller supply vessels and corrupt officials across Southeast Asia, as well as in the Bangladeshi camp, are also integral to the network.
“It’s a big business that uses humanity as its cover,” said Iskandar Dewantara, co-founder of the Geutanyoe Foundation, an Indonesia-based refugee advocacy group.
It can also be brutal.
Hasan provided to AFP footage from a mobile phone he said had belonged to one of the Burmese crew members showing them beating the passengers.
In the video, a trafficker uses what appears to be a whip to repeatedly strike shirtless men huddled together, with rake-thin children and women crowded around them.
The sailor who owned the phone left it when the crew abandoned the boat following a mutiny at sea, according to Hasan.
Escaping the Bangladesh camp starts with a down payment that can reach the equivalent of $2,000, often paid by a refugee’s husband or other relatives in Malaysia using mobile banking applications.
Refugees then get a phone call typically from someone they do not know.
“The call came after a few days and a man instructed us to go to the rickshaw stand in the main food market area of the camp,” said 20-year-old Julekha Begum, who married a Rohingya man in Malaysia via a video chat app.
Rickshaw drivers hired by traffickers take refugees to several barbed-wire security checkpoints, where security forces typically wave them through for a bribe.
Then it is a few hours’ drive to half a dozen take-off zones identified by AFP that line the coast and where thousands of fishing boats make their way out to sea for nightly expeditions.
The Rohingya wait until small boats that hold about a dozen people fill up before they’re taken to much bigger ships far out at sea — sometimes two-storey fishing vessels capable of holding 1,000 people.
The big boats, usually piloted by crews from Myanmar, are equipped with GPS equipment, mobile communications as well as food and drinking water.
“Many fishing boats nowadays carry people to the deep sea where bigger vessels wait for the victims,” said Hemayetul Islam, a refugee camp police battalion commander.
“When we go and check these boats, we see fishing nets and other fishing gear. It is very difficult for us to differentiate between actual fishermen and smugglers.”
Once on their way to Malaysia, smaller boats regularly bring food and water to the big vessels.
Rohingya interviewed by AFP said they were told they would arrive in Malaysia — roughly 4,000 kilometres away — in a week.
In reality, the trip takes months — if they make it at all.
Refugees who made it to Indonesia told stories of beatings and torture, near-starvation rations and threats to hold passengers hostage until their relatives paid more money.
They told varying accounts of the main boats sailing near Malaysia and some passengers being unloaded onto smaller ones for their final destination after relatives paid more money in what were essentially ransom demands.
Asmot Ullah, a 21-year-old man who landed in September, said smugglers “usually beat people on the boat if their relatives don’t make payments or can’t pay more”.
Another passenger, Mohammad Nizam, said he was kept off a smaller, Malaysia-bound boat because of a lack of money.
“They were asking for more money than we had agreed earlier, but my parents couldn’t afford it,” said 25-year-old Nizam.
“If you pay more you will be brought (directly) to Malaysia.”
One boatload of up to 1,000 passengers can be worth up to $3 million for the smugglers, according to authorities.
Indonesian fishermen initially claimed they had rescued the first boatload of about 100 Rohingya in June.
However, the purported “rescue” was in fact a coordinated effort by the smugglers to avoid the tighter border controls in Malaysia, authorities and traffickers involved in the operation said.
“They created this public perception that the fishermen had found them after their boat capsized,” said Sony Sanjaya, director of the general crime division for Aceh’s police.
“But their arrival here wasn’t an accident.”
Once in Indonesia, the smugglers hope to get the Rohingya into Malaysia via a narrow sea crossing that separates the two countries, according to local authorities.
Inside the camps in Bangladesh, a complex mix of compassion, desperation and greed appears to drive the people trafficking network, which has links to the illicit drug trade.
The region is a well-known manufacturing hub of yaba, a cheap methamphetamine popular across Southeast Asia.
AFP spoke with a 25-year-old man who said he was born in one of the oldest refugee settlements in Bangladesh and started working for a Rohingya organised crime leader at the age of 14.
He asked only to be identified by his first name, Mohammed.
“I worked for him for two years and managed to get at least 200 Rohingya willing to go to Malaysia and away from the madness of these camps,” Mohammed said, adding he was paid the equivalent of $550 a month for finding people.
Mohammed said Bangladeshi security forces eventually shot his boss dead, and after a few years out of the trade he is scouting for another way to get back in.
“If I can’t find an opening here, I’ll start doing it myself using my own contacts (overseas),” he said, talking about the money he hoped to make.
But other Rohingya involved in the trafficking in Cox’s Bazar describe their work as a moral duty.
“This is community welfare, not a crime,” said Mohammad Taher, 34, who arranges the rickshaw escape trips past the checkpoints and onto the small boats.
“If someone wants to get out of this hellish place, as a sensible brother, I think it’s my duty to show them the way out.”
Source: Bangkok Post