It was a hazy night in December 2011. Kamal Hossain (not his real name) and 36 Rohingyas boarded a small wooden sea vessel that set off on a journey to Malaysia at around eight in the night. Without any map, the boat started moving towards the west. “That was my first trip. We only had a compass with us,” Kamal says. And that was the only thing which the Sareng (captain of the boat) was depending on. The brokers calculated the depth of the water every twelve hours, and the vessel continued with its journey to the west. “In the deep sea there is no actual Khari (path). The depth of water and the compass can only help you to know the right path,” says Kamal.
Three days later the boat arrived at an unknown island. And from there the crew changed their direction to the south. “Suddenly we lost our sense of direction. And we were left floating on the sea for 27 days without any food or fresh water.”
The cabin of the boat was so small that everyone present there had to huddle together to make space. Without food and water, all the passengers were exhausted. The passengers were getting weaker; some beseeched the Almighty for food. “We roamed for days and nights to survive to get to the land. Seventeen of us died at sea. We had to drink salt water to survive,” says Kamal.
29 days later they saw a ship of the Indian navy. They frantically waved a flag. In January 2012, the Indian Navy finally rescued the passengers. The survivors made up a story to avoid legal procedures. “We told them that we were fishermen who were robbed by pirates three weeks ago and had lost our path in the sea. They believed what we said and gave us shelter,” says Kamal.
“When we got to the island, we came to know that we were in Andhra Pradesh, near Donkuru village of the Srikakulam district. We were admitted to a government-run hospital at Itchapuram. Nearly two years later we came back to Bangladesh.”
Rohingya trafficking in Bangladesh has evolved over the years. Unlike past incidents, the latest victims are faced with adversities even before leaving the borders of the country. Some even lose their lives in the process of trying to give a better life to their families living in refugee camps. Kamal was lucky and survived the risky journey. But the Rohingyas who boarded for Malaysia faced a different fate. Many of them died at sea. And many died when they failed to pay the rest of the money to the brokers in the Thailand coast.
Refugee camps along the coastal areas seem to be the prime targets for traffickers to find hapless victims as the people who live there have had little opportunity to travel anywhere outside their home. It is easier for traffickers to dupe them.
A broker from Ukhia, who prefers to remain anonymous, tells the Star that brokers are usually divided into three categories. The first group organizes refugees and the poor people from different villages, the second group collects money from the refugees and promises them good jobs in Malaysia and the third group collects boats for these 'workers to Malaysia.' “We mainly use Shah Pari or St. Martin's Island since the vigilance is not so strong at those points. It is easy to escape without any problems,” he says.
Lt Kazi Harun-ar-Rashid, commander of the Coast Guard's Teknaf station, tells the Star that the Coast Guard is forever alert against any kind of illegal trafficking. “Our officials and relevant agencies always check the land and sea territory to stop illegal trafficking,” he says. “In the last few months, we have saved many lives from being smuggled out of the country illegally. But the problem is most victims don't approach us in fear of being arrested as they are trying to go to Malaysia or to other countries illegally,” he adds.
However, the Rohingyas are treated in a different way when the police catch them. They are either asked for a bribe or put in jail without even given the chance to clear their stance. Brokers usually claim that they have connections with the police to get rid of such difficulties. “We have to pay money to the police before any voyage and everybody living in the coastal area of Cox's Bazaar knows that the police help us,” the broker says.
An official at the Ministry of Home Affairs, who spoke under condition of anonymity, tells the Star that Bangladesh has enough laws on human trafficking to check any kind of crimes but the implementation never gets priority and thus the problem remains. He also believes that it is quite difficult to implement the new 'Human Trafficking Deterrent and Suppression Act 2012.' "We do not have sufficient man power. And on the other hand the concern body 'Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission' is only working to provide relief instead of making people aware of trafficking." And even here there is no legal framework that safeguards the rights of Rohingya refugees.
Shabira Nupur, National Advocacy Coordinator of World Vision, says, “The new law is a wonderful achievement but to get its full benefit we need to wait longer.” Different non-governmental activists say that although the government formed an anti-trafficking committee, concerned government offices are yet to make any list of victims to provide information to the public.
Kamal lost all his family members four years ago during an ethnic cleansing in Akiab, Myanmar. He is preparing for another voyage to Malaysia. “Now I have to collect Tk 1,70,000. This money will help me to escape from this hell. I do not want to come back to Bangladesh again.” Kamal is taking the risk for the second time. For him and thousand others like him, “the other side of the river” is still a better place to live, where they will have a better chance at survival.