Rohingya fishermen in Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar district in June 2014. Persecuted in Myanmar and unwelcome in Bangladesh, many try to go abroad on smugglers' boats. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario)
Abu Bakkar relied solely on the money he earned as an agricultural day laborer to pay for the expenses of his five-member family. It was rarely enough.
Like many of his neighbors, Bakkar, 33, a Muslim from the Chandanaish area of Bangladesh's Chittagong district, was desperate for a better way of providing for his family. So in early May, he joined a group of 14 from his village to set off for Malaysia in search of better prospects.
Local smugglers took them to Myanmar waters in the Bay of Bengal in a rickety fishing boat, where some 850 people, including 650 Bangladeshis, boarded a large boat en route to Malaysia.
"We didn't pay anything to get on the boat, but they told us we have to pay 170,000 taka (US$2,179) after landing in Malaysia. At this point, it looked like it was worth taking the risk," said Bakkar.
However, it turned out to be an enormous risk.
That month, authorities in Thailand and Malaysia discovered mass graves of people believed to have been trafficked by regional smugglers. This triggered a crackdown on human traffickers throughout the region.
The people running Bakkar's boat fled to avoid getting caught, leaving all the passengers, including Bakkar, adrift at sea near the Thai coastline.
"For two months and 13 days we floated on the sea and for two weeks without any food and water. A female tourist provided food for some 100 people and contacted the Myanmar navy for our rescue," Bakkar told ucanews.com.
Fights over food broke out aboard the boat, leading to one man's death, Bakkar said.
"But we decided to keep calm, so we survived," he said.
After languishing two months in a Myanmar jail, Bakkar and 13 men from Chandanaish returned home in August with support from Caritas offices in Chittagong and Myanmar.
Caritas provided financial assistance for treatment and medicine. The agency also promised to offer cash handouts, livelihood training and employment opportunities for survival.
The returnees say they won't try going abroad illegally anymore.
"When the crackdown started, the smugglers found us worthless,” said Abdul Hamid, 26, who was on the same boat as Bakkar.
Hamid said the smugglers left the boat without food and water, and also removed the ship’s compass and binoculars.
"They wanted us to die at sea, but we survived miraculously. Caritas' help was vital for us getting back home alive," he said.
Caritas' Social Welfare and Community Development project, funded by Caritas Luxembourg, runs seven centers across Bangladesh, providing assistance and advocacy for people willing to go abroad for work.
"In rural areas … we assist people to migrate safely, which includes obtaining passports, visas and clearance certificates," said Shymol Chandra Mazumder, manager of Caritas' safe migration project.
Mazumder said the recent smuggling victims need medical treatment and financial assistance for rehabilitation. He said Caritas would provide them with training and small loans so that they can start a small business.
The coming end of the rainy season in the Bay of Bengal has sparked fears of a new exodus of migrants and asylum seekers from Bangladesh and Myanmar. (Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario)
'Nothing will change'
In the past five months, about 1,000 Bangladeshi people who tried to go abroad illegally have returned home, according to Cox's Bazar Civil Society, a local anti-trafficking advocacy group.
With the coming end of the rainy season and the potential of a new sailing season looming large, people smugglers are likely to resume their business, says Abu Morshed Chowdhury, the society's president.
"Once, only the people from Cox's Bazar used to make illegal sea voyages, but now people from all over the country want to do it. Because the sea is rough during rainy season, people smugglers are waiting for winter to resume their illegal trade," Chowdhury told ucanews.com.
"Poor people try to go abroad to change their luck and they will try it again if their socioeconomic conditions don't improve. The government is finishing off the job by repatriation, but without any effort for their rehabilitation and tackling socioeconomic issues, nothing will change," he said.
In an August press briefing, U.N. Refugee Agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming urged action before the end of the monsoon season, which unleashes a new wave of people leaving on smugglers' boats.
"The boat movements have temporarily stopped due to monsoon rains … However, the maritime departures are expected to resume once weather improves in the coming weeks and the next sailing season starts," she said.
Despite having a strict anti-trafficking law in place since 2012 that stipulates the death penalty for human trafficking, illegal maritime movements are rampant in Bangladesh.
At least 125,000 Bangladeshis made the dangerous sea voyage from Bangladesh between 2012-2014, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
Some 31,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis have departed from the Bay of Bengal on smugglers' boats in first six months of 2015, according to the agency.
Crackdown on smugglers
Amid a public outcry, Bangladesh's government has taken steps to crack down on human traffickers mostly active in remote coastal areas in Cox's Bazar and Chittagong districts.
Since May, police and border guards have arrested 20 human traffickers, while four were killed in shootouts with lawmen in Cox's Bazar district.
On Sept. 17, police in Teknaf of Cox's Bazar arrested Dil Muhammad, considered a human trafficking "godfather" in Bangladesh after he returned from Malaysia.
Muhammad, 45, is accused of running the biggest people-smuggling racket in Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. His scheme allegedly sent hundreds of impoverished Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugees to Malaysia in small rickety boats through the Bay of Bengal in the last few years.
"We have a list of local human traffickers, and we are trying to arrest them all if they are in Bangladesh," said Kabir Hossain, police chief at Teknaf.
"We are aware that some fugitive traffickers have started returning home because they think the anti-trafficking raids are over and they can resume business as the rainy season is over," Hossain added.
A senior Bangladesh border guard official says battalions are on full alert to avert the resumption of smuggling.
"Some local human traffickers have been arrested, and others have fled the area," said Lt. Col. Abuzar Al-Zahid.
"We are in touch with officials and local people, to keep a keen eye against trafficking and promote awareness about the risks and negative impacts of illegal maritime movements," he added.
Labor officials are also hoping to address the problem by making it easier for Bangladeshi workers to find jobs in Malaysia. The two countries have been negotiating a deal that could see 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers sent to Malaysia — legally — over three years.
Rights advocates hope such a deal would make dangerous illegal sea crossings much less attractive to potential migrants.