Rohingya refugees at Shah Porir Dwip island of Bangladesh after crossing the Naf River while fleeing violence in Myanmar on Sept. 13, 2017. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
"Everyone has dreams — for prosperity, self-reliance and a better future for the next generation. It is not a bad thing; it is our right," a Rohingya Muslim mother of eight says with confidence.
Widow Aiyatul, 54, is the head of a 20-member extended family living in four makeshift houses in Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
The family moved to Bangladesh in November 2016 following a military crackdown in Rakhine State of Myanmar. In the camp, they rely solely on aid from humanitarian groups and Bangladesh's government for survival.
Aiyatul saw her three daughters and three of her sons get married before they left Rakhine. Her dreams of a better life now rest on her two unmarried sons, who luckily survived a human trafficking trap.
"A few months ago, a man came to me at night and said he could send my sons abroad free of costs. I thought he was a good man, doing a favor for us. We agreed but he never came back," she told ucanews.com.
Aiyatul is skeptical about her family being able to return to Myanmar, so she wants her family members to improve their lives in the camps by any means.
"When we came here, we thought fighting and persecution would end soon and we could go back to our home. It seems like a distant dream as we have no idea whether we can ever go back to Maungdaw," she said.
"The aid will dry up one day, but if we have an income, we can survive. We need to find a livelihood as there are fewer opportunities in the camp."
In all likelihood, the "good man" who visited Aiyatul's family was an agent for one of the human trafficking rackets active in Cox's Bazar.
Trafficking of Rohingya and poor Bangladeshis sparked the Asian boat people tragedy of 2015. Dozens of mass graves were found near the Thailand-Malaysia border containing the bodies of trafficking victims who had been abused and starved to death for failing to pay ransoms.
It prompted the Thai and Malaysian governments to launch a massive crackdown on human traffickers, forcing their cohorts to abandon their slave ships adrift in the sea and sparking a global public and media outcry.
Survivor's close call
Muhammad Arman, 26, is a victim of trafficking who survived an ordeal in 2014.
He is the youngest son of Muhammad Akkas, 70, who moved to Bangladesh in 1991 with his 10-member family. They are based in Kutupalong refugee camp.
Arman was offered a job in Malaysia by a local Bengali man. He managed to find 20,000 taka (US$235) for travel costs and boarded a boat to reach the Southeast Asian country one night.
Five days later, Akkas received a phone call. The caller asked for a ransom of 50,000 taka and threatened to hold his son captive and starve him to death in a jungle if the amount was not paid.
"I managed to borrow 30,000 taka and paid it as ransom. After two weeks, they released my son and he came back to the camp. My son couldn't tell where they took him as he boarded the trawler at night and had no idea where he was taken," Akkas told ucanews.com.
This elderly Rohingya father is determined not to let this ordeal happen again.
"I will never send any of my sons abroad illegally, and I also request everyone not to be lured by false promises," Akkas said.
Rohingya refugees head to Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar after fleeing to Bangladesh from strife-torn Myanmar on Sept. 9, 2017. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Abu Morshed Chowdhury, president of Cox's Bazar Civil Society, an anti-trafficking group, says the Rohingya remain exposed to illegal and anti-social activities like human trafficking.
"Physically, linguistically and culturally, Rohingya and Bengali people have lots of similarities. It's really tough to monitor them meticulously. Moreover, their poverty and misery make them susceptible to trafficking," Chowdhury told ucanews.com.
In particular, Rohingya girls and women are most vulnerable to such crimes.
"Both Bengali Muslim and Rohingya women wear the burqa, so it's very possible for Rohingya women to fall prey to traffickers," Chowdhury said.
"We have been closely working with local government and law enforcement agencies to conduct an anti-trafficking campaign in camps and asked for increasing surveillance. Sadly, the government lacks manpower to halt crimes like trafficking."
Surveillance beefed up
Jahirul Islam, officer in charge at Ukhiya police station, said measures have been taken to tackle crimes such as trafficking, drug peddling and robbery in camps.
"We have set up five temporary police posts in the camps. In addition, plainclothes police and detectives are monitoring camps regularly," Islam told ucanews.com.
The officer said dozens of traffickers, both Bengali and Rohingya, have been arrested since 2015 and the crackdown is ongoing. Police are also investigating 13 cases of murder in the camps during this period.
"Dozens of traffickers have been sued and are facing trial. More than 100 cases of drug trafficking and 24 cases of arms smuggling are under investigation. Law enforcement is on high alert and Cox's Bazar has been marked as a high-risk crime zone," Islam said.
Anti-social activities have increased in Cox's Bazar recently, says Gafor Uddin Chowdhury, chairman of Palongkhali Union Council, a local government body.
"Crime syndicates are gradually engaging Rohingya in criminal activities. Young men are being used for drug, arms and human trafficking. Young girls and women are being lured into the sex trade. Often crime syndicates clash with each other and violence occurs. The law and order situation is getting worse day by day," Chowdhury told ucanews.com.
This article was first published 16.5.2018.