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Boat tragedy sparks fresh Rohingya trafficking alarm

People-smuggling gangs appear to be active again in Bangladesh's refugee camps

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Boat tragedy sparks fresh Rohingya trafficking alarm

A fishing boat on the Naf River, which connects with the Bay of Bengal, area of Cox’s Bazar on the Bangladeshi coast. The latest boat tragedy has raised alarm about renewed trafficking of Rohingya from Bangladeshi refugee camps. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

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A boat capsize in the Bay of Bengal that killed 15 Rohingya refugees from camps in Bangladesh has triggered fresh fears about the vulnerability of the beleaguered community to human trafficking.

A fishing boat carrying 135 people, mostly Rohingya refugees from camps in Cox’s Bazar district, sank in the early hours of Feb. 11 as it headed for Malaysia illegally, law enforcers said.

Some 11 women and four children died by drowning, while 72 people including four boatmen were rescued by coastguard and navy personnel and 50 passengers are still missing.

“Most of those rescued alive have been sent back to the camps and we have detained some who we suspect to be human traffickers. In addition, we have arrested six people on allegations of their involvement in a trafficking syndicate,” A.B.M. Masud Sohel, police chief of Cox’s Bazar district, told UCA News.

Most of the victims and survivors are women and police suspect that they were being trafficked to Malaysia after being lured by the prospect of marriage and jobs in the southeast Asian country, the official said.

“We came to know each woman paid or promised to pay 40,000 taka (US$471) as fees to reach Malaysia,” he added.

The incident is frustrating and points to a revival of trafficking gangs, according to Abu Morshed Chowdhury, head of Cox’s Bazar Civil Society, an anti-trafficking group.

“This is disappointing despite the presence of a large number of law enforcers in refugee camps and in Cox’s Bazar. The money and efforts in security measures bear no fruit in order to tackle trafficking because there is no concerted effort to strictly monitor trafficking,” Chowdhury told UCA News.

“We have only come to know about one boat of traffickers after it was caught up in an accident, but I suspect a number of trafficking boats have already left and reached their destination.”

The government needs to form a strong task force with lawmen, anti-trafficking groups and local communities to combat human trafficking, he noted.

Exploiting frustrations of Rohingya

Traffickers are exploiting the frustrations and ambitions of Rohingya refugees, said Pintu William Gomes, director of the disaster management department at Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh, which operates in refugee camps.

“The victims might have been entrapped or willing to move to Malaysia for a better life, which remains to be seen,” Gomes told UCA News.

“It is true that refugees are frustrated over an uncertain future in Bangladesh as their repatriation to Myanmar is still in limbo. The services of NGOs in the camps and the concerns of the international community are not them giving enough hope to hang on.”

Caritas and national and international charities are doing whatever they can to support refugees and to motivate them to stay away from trafficking gangs, he said.

“However, we cannot fulfill their psycho-social needs as dignified human beings, which makes them frustrated and desperate to do anything to have a better life. It makes it difficult to stop them from taking dangerous paths like risky sea voyages,” Gomes added.  

Trafficking of Rohingya at the hands of transnational gangs made global headlines in 2015.

Following the discovery of mass graves of trafficking victims in forests on the Thai-Malay border, presumably tortured to death by traffickers, authorities in Malaysia and Thailand launched a heavy crackdown on regional trafficking gangs.  

The crackdown forced members of trafficking rings to abandon boats and ships loaded with Rohingya and Bangladeshi victims adrift in the Andaman Sea without any food and water, leading to a massive humanitarian crisis.

In the aftermath, Bangladesh also launched a crackdown on traffickers. Dozens were arrested and some were killed in police shootouts, forcing many traffickers to go into hiding or to flee the country.

However, in recent times some trafficking gangs have revived their networks along the Bangladeshi coastline from October to March when the sea is calm and favorable for boat journeys.

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