A Rohingya girl seen at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on Feb. 12. Bangladeshi border guards have apprehended dozens of Rohingya women and girls trying to flee by boat to Malaysia to get married to Rohingya men already there. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Tahmina Begum and her family had a relatively prosperous life at their home in Maungdaw town in Rakhine State of Myanmar before a military crackdown on their ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority.
"We had a fish farm and income was good enough for a happy family life, but everything is gone now," Begum, 20, a refugee in Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar of Bangladesh, told ucanews.com.
She fled with her parents and two brothers at the end of December 2017 and joined Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, now numbering more than a million, who escaped various bouts of persecution in Myanmar.
The family settled in the camp where they survive with aid from humanitarian groups and the Bangladesh government.
As the eldest sibling, Begum wanted to do something to lessen the economic and psychological burdens on her poor family.
"Here, I had an affair with a man who fled to Malaysia by boat about four months ago," she said. "I have been in touch with him and he wants me go there so that we can marry. He gave me 20,000 taka (US$238) for my travel expenses."
Initially, her parents disliked the proposal, but they eventually agreed for financial reasons.
"If I marry a man in the camp, my family has to pay a dowry (cash and valuables to a groom's family) as per the custom," she said. "Marrying in Malaysia does not need a dowry. Moreover, I can help my family if I can get a job there."
Begum joined a group of 30 people, including 20 women, and paid money to so-called brokers to set off in early February on a risky boat journey to Malaysia through the Bay of Bengal.
But they were not in luck. Bangladeshi border guards nabbed their boat and sent those on board back to the camps.
Begum's experience is increasingly common in the Rohingya refugee camps of Bangladesh. According to Bangladesh border guards, most of the more than 100 Rohingya arrested along the coast in the past month were women aged 17-25.
Poverty of camp life
Lt. Col. Asdud Zaman Chowdhury, a border guard battalion commander, told ucanews.com that there had been a sudden rise in the number of women seeking to reach Malaysia by the dangerous sea route.
For this reason, the number of border patrols had been increased. "We have arrested some traffickers as well," Chowdhury said.
Muhammad Abul Kalam, a Rohingya community leader from Balukhali refugee camp, said a syndicate was actively luring Rohingya women to go to Malaysia from various camps in Bangladesh.
"I have come to know that a group of brokers have been working secretly in the camps to convince women to go to Malaysia to marry Rohingya men already there," Kalam told ucanews.com. "They can leave the poverty of camp life and even help their families."
Trafficking of Rohingya women is a lucrative business, according to James Gomes, a regional director of the Catholic charity Caritas.
"There is a nexus of Bengali brokers and Rohingya in camps involved in luring Rohingya women into illegal activities," he said. "It is true Rohingya have a miserable life in the camps and they will try to grab any better option they are offered even if it is illegal or unethical."
Gomes added that while law enforcement surveillance could help prevent abuses, aid groups needed to carry out awareness campaigns among refugees.
Rohingya Muslims have lived in Myanmar for centuries but successive governments have denied them citizenship and basic human rights. Many in Myanmar's Buddhist majority consider them to be recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Due to persecution by hard-line Buddhists and the military, Rohingya have been crossing into Bangladesh since 1970s.
Rohingya received little attention internationally before 2012 sectarian violence in Rakhine and a 2015 so-called "boat people crisis."
The 2015 crisis saw thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis on board traffickers' boats abandoned and left adrift in the Andaman Sea. It came not long after discovery of mass graves of trafficking victims near the Thai-Malay border and a crackdown on human trafficking by Malaysia and Thailand.
Two deadly military crackdowns in 2016 and 2017, in response to Rohingya militant attacks on security forces, sparked an exodus of more than 750,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh who joined more than 300,000 Rohingya already in the country.