Despite crackdowns, fears rise over human trafficking

Winter is high season for moving people in the Bay of Bengal
Despite crackdowns, fears rise over human trafficking

Rohingya refugee fishermen are seen on a beach in Cox's Bazar district in this June 2014 photo. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario)

Despite ongoing vigilance from law enforcement, rumors abound that human traffickers have secretly resumed illegal people-smuggling in the Bay of Bengal which might spark another boatpeople crisis in the region.

Law enforcerment claims "zero" human trafficking cases this winter, the hay time for people-smugglers, owing to a raid in, and ongoing watch of, the Teknaf area of Cox's Bazar, the main embarkation point along the Bangladesh coast, just across from the Myanmar border.

"Up until now, we have arrested and jailed a total 175 human traffickers including some ringleaders. Human trafficking is zero in the area now," said Ataur Rahman, officer in-charge at Teknaf police station.

"We have been coordinating with border guards and the navy to constantly patrol in vulnerable spots. We also have a public awareness campaign among villagers against trafficking, so there is no such crime happening," Rahman claimed.

However, a source in Cox's Bazar said there were rumors that two small boats containing illegal migrants left for Malaysia last month.

"We heard that two boats collected some Bangladeshis and Rohingyas and set off for Malaysia, the last one was two weeks ago. However, we couldn't verify the rumors," said Zabed Iqbal Chowdhury, a local journalist in Cox's Bazar.

"Winter is the best time for human trafficking, which might be less this year due to the crackdown, but there might be some that slips under the radar," Chowdhury said.  

Rahman said the rumors were "baseless."

Unreported incidents of moving boatpeople might not be impossible to verify, but also impossible to completely eliminate, said Abu Morshed Chowdhury, president of Cox's Bazar Civil Society, a local anti-trafficking group.

"People smuggling is a big business for traffickers, while it is assumed as a way to prosperity for poor people. No country can stop it completely, but can bring it to a tolerable condition," Chowdhury said.

"Smugglers might be more cautious than ever due to recent crackdowns, so they could evade the eyes of law enforcers," he said.

 

Potential labor deal stalled

Meanwhile, a highly anticipated labor deal between Bangladesh and Malaysia, which could pave the way for up to 1.5 million Bangladeshis to legally work in Malaysia over the next three years, and help curb deadly smuggling operations, remains stalled.

An agreement would see government agencies charge Bangladeshi workers about 36,000 taka, or US$450, for a job placement in Malaysia. Such a process would be conducted through official government channels, though private agencies may charge twice as much under the scheme.

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Labor advocates saw the potential deal as a major step in addressing people-smuggling operations, particularly in light of May's migrant boat crisis on the Andaman Sea. In May, thousands of Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar were stranded on the high seas after human traffickers abandoned their boats following a regional crackdown on smuggling.

Bangladesh officials expected the deal to be signed in October when several top level Malaysian officials visited Dhaka, but it is yet to be realized.

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