Fleeing poverty, Bangladeshis caught in Asian boat crisis
Ukhiya, Bangladesh — The traffickers spun stories that were unimaginable to their listeners, many who hailed from tiny Bangladeshi villages where almost no one earns more than a few dollars a day.
First, there would be the boat: A huge boat where people could spread out comfortably, where the food would be plentiful and delicious. They would be treated with decency while on board and at the end of a week or so they would be quietly dropped off in Malaysia and given high-paying jobs.
After that, they would have plenty of money to send home to their families. There would be enough for food and house payments and school fees for their children. Maybe, if they worked hard enough, there would be enough to build monuments to their success.
“Since my childhood I have dreamed of building a two-story mosque in my area,” said Shafiq Mia, a 23-year-old who spent weeks on one of the traffickers’ boats.
Instead they were taken to fetid ships so crowded they could not lie down without touching someone else. They spent weeks at sea. Some were dropped off to fend for themselves in the jungles of Thailand or in Burmese villages they still cannot name. Some never reached dry land at all, and found themselves shuttled from one creaky boat to another, bought and sold by traffickers looking to maximize their profits. In the end, most were taken back to Bangladesh, dumped onto beaches from fishing boats, only after their families finally paid ransoms to the traffickers.
As a boat people crisis emerged in Southeast Asia in recent weeks, nearly all the focus has been on the Rohingya: the persecuted Muslim minority fleeing Myanmar. But of the more than 3,000 people who have come ashore this month in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, about half were from Bangladesh, according to the U.N. refugee agency — poor laborers seeking better jobs and a brighter future.
Bangladesh is no longer the economic sinkhole it was in the past. The textile industry has given it a huge boost. The economy is growing at more than 6 percent and the U.N.’s development report now ranks Bangladesh with countries like India and Egypt.
But poverty hangs on. GDP per capita is just over $1,000 a year. Work can be miserable in those textile factories, and many Bangladeshis find themselves only inching up the economic ladder. It’s a situation that leaves many people, particularly young people, susceptible to the sales pitches of fast-talking traffickers paid a bonus for every person they lure on board.
So it was for Mia, who was promised what sounded like a leisurely weeklong cruise to Malaysia and a dreamlike life once he got there. His factory job paid only a meager 7,000 takas ($90) a month.
“They told me I would be on a ship so big I could play cricket. I would be offered good and tasty food during my journey,” he said in a recent interview.
“But they did not give us food. They beat us mercilessly. They kicked us whenever we wanted food or even talked to someone else,” he said, his eyes filled with tears and his legs covered in bruises from the beatings he endured.
After two months spent trapped on a boat and in unknown places in Myanmar, a fishing trawler dropped him this week along Bangladesh’s coastline. His impoverished parents had paid more than $600 as ransom to free him.
Such ransoms are commonplace, particularly when crackdowns mean traffickers cannot get their human cargo to Malaysia. The victims are sometimes given a mobile phone number connected to a bank account so their families can send money electronically, or a series of murky middlemen shuttle ransom money to traffickers.
The migrants get little sympathy from their government.
Sheikh Hasina, the country’s prime minister and the scion of a powerful political family, says the migrants are tainting the image of the country, labeling them “mentally sick.”
She has urged them instead to invest the money they would pay to traffickers — though few poor Bangladeshis have any savings to invest.
At a makeshift landing station on the Bay of Bengal, 19-year-old Mohammed Rubel described how traffickers transported the terrified migrants to the large boats that carry them out to sea.
The passengers, Bangladeshis who arrive at the coast from across the country, are first kept in thatched huts along the shore.
“Once you are trapped, nobody can flee. You must go with them,” he said. “Often they are armed with weapons, firearms.”
Rubel, who used to work in a steel factory, was confined to an island near Teknaf, which borders Myanmar, along with 12 other people.
“They guarded us in a home there. I attempted to flee but they caught me and beat me. Finally I was taken to a fishing trawler with the others and ended up on a big ship with several hundred people,” he said.
“They did not give us food,” he said. “We had to drink our own urine because they did not give us water.”
The big ship dropped them off at the Thai coast, where they hiked into the hilly jungle, sleeping out in the open. Along the way, Rubel said he saw at least two men beaten to death.
Caught by Thai police, they were taken to a police station, from where they were sold to another group of traffickers, he said.
Calls to the Thai provincial police office rang unanswered. However, the discovery of dead bodies at border jungle camps earlier this month did prompt a crackdown in Thailand that has led to the arrest of 49 people for suspected involvement in human trafficking, and dozens of police are under investigation.
Rubel said they got close to Malaysia and waited for two weeks because the traffickers told them the border was tense. They weren’t given any food or water. As he waited, he started to feel hopeless.
“I will just die here,” Rubel said he thought.
Then Thai police raided the area, and the group of 38 migrants was jailed. Eventually, the Bangladeshi Embassy verified their identities and he was processed for repatriation. A mysterious American, he said, paid for their airfare back to Bangladesh.
He never made it to Malaysia.
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