A fishing boat departs from New Bridge, near Chittagong to head into the Bay of Bengal in this Feb. 9 file photo. Four years ago, hundreds of trafficked Rohingya and Bangladeshis found themselves struggling to survive on similar boats bound for Malaysia during what was called the Asian boat people crisis (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com).
Emdad Ullah, a 21-year-old Muslim from the Chandanaish area of south-eastern Chittagong district in Bangladesh, longs to be able to support his poor family.
The youngest of seven sons, Emdad didn't go to school because his family could not afford to pay for his education.
The young man can only sign his own name and has no vocational skills apart from experience as an agricultural laborer like his father and brothers.
"Our family does not have a piece of land," Emdad told ucanews.com.
While their house is located on government land, so-called 'influential people' had for years been claiming ownership.
Five of Emdad's brothers got married and all of them live in the same house.
In 2015, Emdad got what he then thought was a positive life-changing offer from a local man: a lucrative job in Malaysia.
All he purportedly needed to do was jump on a boat off the Bay of Bengal in order to travel to Malaysia, albeit illegally.
"I was told that there were jobs in Malaysia waiting for people like me," Emdad recalled, adding that he was led to believe that once he got a job he would just need to repay a minimal amount for his travel costs.
In March 2015, Emdad joined 350 local men to set off for Malaysia.
The first boat stopped at Kutubdia Island off the Bangladeshi coast and the passengers then boarded another boat in order to dodge members of the Bangladesh navy and coast guard.
The second boat left passengers on the Andaman Sea coast off Myanmar before a larger boat arrived. It set off with a total of 879 Bangladeshis who like Emdad were Malaysia bound.
But the passengers soon realized that they had been duped by the human traffickers.
"In the boat they started being rude to us and forced us to survive on a little rice and curry," he said.
"They beat us up if we asked for more food or asked why they were abusing us.
"One guy asked for water when rice got stuck in his throat, but they beat him up so bad that he eventually died.
"They dumped his body in the sea."
Off the coast off Thailand, traffickers huddled people on several small boats, avowedly to send them to Malaysia. However, the traffickers abandoned the boats at sea.
This occurred at the time when authorities discovered mass graves of human trafficking victims, most of them Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis, on the Thai-Malay border. They were presumed to have starved to death or been killed after family members were accused of failing to pay a ransom to human traffickers.
The discovery of the graves sparked an unprecedented anti-trafficking crackdown in Thailand and Malaysia.
That led to a collapse of regional trafficking networks with dozens of boats full of desperate Rohingya and Bangladeshis left adrift in the Andaman Sea.
The abandonment of the boats loaded with hungry, sick and abused trafficking victims sparked a massive media and public outcry, which later came to be known as the 'Asian boat people crisis'.
The boat that Emdad was on reached the coast of Myanmar two months after he left home. It was intercepted by the Myanmar navy personnel and those on board were handed over to officials of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Emdad returned home to Bangladesh a couple of weeks later.
There Emdad learned that an agent of the traffickers forced his family to pay 60,000 taka (US$723) in a form of ransom.
Emdad and his family didn't sue the people who duped him, despite the misery and financial loss.
"We are poor and powerless people, so we cannot fight traffickers who are financially influential and have strong connections," he said.
He added that the government could consider acting against the traffickers if it wanted to avoid more poor people being entrapped and cheated in the future.
Migrants, who were found at sea on a boat, prepare to board a truck to be taken to a temporary refugee camp located near the Bangladesh border fence, at Kanyin Chaung jetty, outside Myanmar’s Maungdaw township in Rakhine State on June 4, 2015. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
Massive crackdown, low conviction rate
The boat people crisis also sparked an anti-trafficking crackdown in Bangladesh.
Hundreds of traffickers were arrested and some were killed in shootouts, mostly in southern Cox's Bazar district, which houses some one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. This district is also the main embarkation point for traffickers' boats.
The government amended the 'Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act 2012', introducing the death penalty for the offence.
However, rights' activists criticize extremely low conviction rates in trafficking cases.
According to Bangladesh police, many thousands have been trafficked out of Bangladesh during the past six years, but only 30 people were convicted for human trafficking.
Bangladesh remains on the so-called ‘Tier Two’ of a U.S. Department of State human trafficking watch list.
Recently, Kazi Reazul Hoque, chairman of Bangladesh's National Human Rights' Commission (NHRC), said he feared that the nation's failure to curb trafficking and prosecute traffickers would lead to U.S and international sanctions being imposed.
Despite the strong new laws, the situation had not improved, Hoque told the Reuters news agency.
Nazrul Islam, a permanent member of the NHRC, cited a failure to establish separate tribunals for trafficking cases and a monitoring system for those most at risk.
Many victims faced harassment in relation to investigations and prosecutions, Islam told ucanews.com.
The NHRC has worked with government agencies and civil society groups to formulate the so-called 'National Plan of Action for Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking 2018-2022'.
The plan calls for the setting up of special tribunals in trafficking prone districts as well as government and non-government co-operation to monitor progress.
It also seeks the speeding up of the prosecution process, particularly for labor recruiters and traffickers, as well as witness protection and an awareness campaigns in vulnerable communities.
Caritas for safe migration
Since 2010, the Catholic welfare agency Caritas has run a project called 'Safe Migration' in regions including Chittagong and Cox's Bazar to support people who want to go abroad to work.
The project is funded by Caritas Luxembourg.
James Gomes, regional director of Caritas Chittagong, told ucanews.com, that the aim was to warn people about the risks of unsafe and illegal migration.
In 2015, Caritas helped return dozens of trafficking victims from Myanmar amid the boat people crisis.
"The law needs to be strictly enforced," Gomes said.
Both greater awareness and grass roots socio-economic progress would help curb human trafficking, he added.