Desperate Rohingya seek new escape routes from Bangladesh
In squalid camps in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled violence and persecution in neighbouring Myanmar dream of a better life abroad – and rely on increasingly high-tech trafficking networks to get them there.
Dhaka denies new arrivals refugee status and, after a major crackdown sealed off the ocean routes traditionally used to traffic migrants to Southeast Asia, many Rohingya are turning to complex smuggling operations to escape Bangladesh.
"People are desperate to leave the camps," said community leader Mohammad Idris. "Those who have money or gold ornaments are paying smugglers to get them out by air and those who don't are trying roads."
The Rohingya, who live mainly in Myanmar, are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Many now live in grinding poverty in Bangladesh's southeast coastal district of Cox's Bazar, packed into camps that were home to more than 300,000 Rohingya even before some 70,000 new arrivals poured across the border after the Myanmar army launched a bloody crackdown last October. Bangladesh denies them the right to work and is proposing to re-house them on a mosquito-infested island that regularly floods at high tide.
For years, rickety boats were the main mode of escape for the refugees who would pay hefty amounts to smugglers to get them to Malaysia and Thailand. Those routes were cut off in 2015 when mass graves of would-be migrants, many of them killed at sea, were discovered in Thailand, triggering a global outcry and a major crackdown on traffickers. But the smuggling networks swiftly identified new routes out of Bangladesh by air and road, using mobile payments to operate internationally.
The Rohingya refugee crisis
Boats carrying more than 1,600 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants arrived off the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia last week after human traffickers reportedly dumped the boats in shallow waters. Others have entered Thailand's territorial waters. Some refugees were able to land; others have been towed back out to sea in their boats. All three countries have stated that they view the refugees as illegal migrants and have said they would provide food and water for them but not safe harbour. In this photo gallery, we take a look at the refugees' ordeal.
Rohingya migrants on a boat off the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea. The boat, which was crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants, including many young children, was found drifting in Thai waters on 14 May. Passengers said several people had died in the previous days. Dozens of visibly weak people were on the deck of the stricken vessel, which was found apparently adrift several kilometres off Koh Lipe.
On Sunday, 10 May, a group of about 600 people arrived in the Indonesian province of Aceh on four boats. At about the same time, more than 1,000 others landed in three boats on the northern Malaysian resort island of Langkawi. At least two of these overcrowded boats were towed to shore by local fishermen. Those rescued were rounded up by the police. Pictured here: migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter, Lhoksukon, Indonesia, 11 May 2015.
Human traffickers apparently abandoned the ships and left the hungry migrants to fend for themselves. Indonesian authorities and aid agencies believe the rescued group had been at sea for about a week. Many were in need of medical care. The authorities warn more desperate migrants could still be in peril at sea. Pictured here: Indonesian Rescue Team members distribute food to migrants in a shelter in Lhoksukon, Indonesia, 11 May 2015.
Every year, thousands of impoverished Bangladeshis and Muslim Rohingya from Buddhist-majority Myanmar brave perilous sea routes in rickety traffickers' boats similar to this one in a desperate attempt to reach Malaysia and Indonesia. The UNHCR estimates that some 25,000 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis boarded people smugglers' boats in the first three months of this year.
Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Most of them are not recognised as citizens of the country, and outbreaks of sectarian violence have prompted many to flee. "An entire population feels their only option is to seek asylum by sea," says Matthew Smith of Fortify Rights. The figure of Rohingya trafficked in Thailand since 2012 could be as high as a quarter million.
Fleeing discrimination, many Rohingya contact a broker who tells them they will be taken directly to Malaysia for the equivalent of up to $200, says Smith. Throughout the journey they are denied adequate food and water and subjected to beatings. Some are even killed. The boats travel to Thai waters where they are transported to makeshift jungle camps onshore. Pictured here: Rohingya women and children on a military truck to be taken to a temporary shelter in Seunuddon, Indonesia, 10 May 2015.
Many Rohingya are forced to cross Thailand using vehicles run by smugglers, who hold them in captivity in squalid jungle camps until a ransom is paid by their family back home. However, following the Thai government's recent crackdown on human trafficking after the discovery of several mass graves (seen here), many smugglers are taking new measures, putting the migrants' lives at greater risk.
As a result of the crackdown by Thai authorities, Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees were found wandering around southern Thailand near suspected jungle camps, apparently after they were abandoned by the smugglers who fled. Pictured here: rescue workers and forensic officials inspect the site of a mass grave near the Thai–Malaysian border. Authorities in Thailand uncovered the mass grave on 1 May 2015. It is believed to contain the remains of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
South-East Asia is being hit by a wave of migrants, partly driven by conflict, persecution and poverty. The Asia-Pacific region recently recorded an estimated 11.7 million trafficked people, the highest figure of any region. The Greater-Mekong Sub-region encompassing Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam features some of the most extensive flows of migration and human trafficking.
Rohingya migrants swim to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter. Thailand, which is often a transit point for the migrants, has asked for high-level meetings between the regional players, a request that has been rejected by Myanmar, where many of the refugees originate.
A Rohingya migrant, who arrived in Indonesia by boat, cries while speaking to a relative in Malaysia on a mobile phone at a temporary shelter in Kuala Langsa in Indonesia's Aceh Province, 16 May 2015. Many vessels crammed with refugees were sent back to sea despite a United Nations call to rescue thousands adrift in South-East Asian waters with dwindling food and water.
Mohammad, an undocumented 20-year-old Rohingya, said he spent 600,000 taka ($7,700) to reach Saudi Arabia, where he now lives.
"I paid a local friend for a Bangladeshi passport and other papers. He also helped me pass through the immigration," Mohammad told journalists using the WhatsApp messaging service. He asked that his family name not be used.
As it becomes more difficult for migrants to leave Bangladesh, many have been forced to head to destinations once considered less appealing. Those who cannot afford flights are using buses and even travelling on foot to escape Bangladesh, going to India before moving on to Nepal or Pakistan. Some have even settled in the troubled Kashmir region.
There is no reliable data on the value of the trafficking trade, but estimates suggest it is worth millions of dollars in Bangladesh alone. These networks arrange fake Bangladeshi passports and birth certificates for the Rohingya, a stateless ethnic minority denied citizenship rights in Myanmar, even though they have lived in the Buddhist-majority nation for generations.
"It's unbelievable how deep the traffickers' grassroots network is and how smoothly they operate across nations," said Shakirul Islam, head of a migrants' welfare organisation called Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program.
Migration expert Jalaluddin Sikder said a proliferation of mobile phone money transfer services in Bangladesh was making it easier for the traffickers to do business internationally.
"Multinational trafficking rackets are now a phone call away," said Sikder, who works in Dhaka's Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, Bangladesh's main private think tank on cross-border migration.
Research conducted last year by a local charity uncovered complex underground trafficking networks that span the globe, using sophisticated technology to distribute payments globally without detection.
"They are efficient in distributing the money to all the key players," said Selim Ahmed Parvez, researcher for the Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF). These, he said, range from "local trafficking agents, to law-enforcing officers, administrative officials, politicians and the kingpins."
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite force fighting militancy and organised crime in Bangladesh, told journalists they were working to stop Rohingya being smuggled out of the country.
"It (trafficking) is happening here and we're trying hard to identify the routes and the channels the smugglers use," said Nurul Amin, RAB commander for Cox's Bazar.
But tracking down the smugglers is only half the battle. Fears are rising in the camps over a proposal to move the estimated 400,000 Rohingya to a desolate island in the Bay of Bengal – a fate many say they would do anything to avoid.
"We've successfully tackled the boat migration. And now our focus is on other smuggling routes," said the RAB's Amin. "But if someone is so desperate to migrate, can you stop him?" (AFP)
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