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Bangladeshi Migrants Risk High Seas and Smugglers to Escape Poverty

These men, aspiring migrants who were abandoned by traffickers on the open ocean, were recently rescued by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and reunited with their families in Teknaf, located in the southern coastal district of Cox’s Bazar. Credit: Abdur Rahman/IPS

TEKNAF, Bangladesh, Jun 30 2015 (IPS) - Though he is only 16 years old, Mohammad Yasin has been through hell and back. He recently survived a hazardous journey by sea, crammed into the cargo-hold of a rudimentary boat along with 115 others.

For 45 days they bobbed about on the Indian Ocean somewhere between their native Bangladesh and their destination, Malaysia, with scarcely any food, no water and little hope of making it to shore alive.

Midway through the ordeal, Yasin watched one of his fellow travelers die of starvation, a fate that very nearly claimed him as well.

The young man, who hails from a poor cobbler’s family in Teknaf, located on the southernmost tip of Bangladesh’s coastal district of Cox’s Bazaar, broke down in tears as he narrated the tale, putting a human face to the story of a major exodus of migrants and political refugees in Southeast Asia that has rights groups as well as the United Nations up in arms.

45 days of torture

“Horror unfolded as we sailed. Supplies were scarce and food and water was rationed every three days. Many of us vomited as the boat negotiated the mighty waves." -- ” Mohammad Ripon, a Bangladeshi migrant who survived a torturous maritime journey
Yasin tells IPS it all began when a group of men from the neighbouring Bandarban district promised to take him, and five others from Teknaf village, to Malaysia in search of work.

With an 80-dollar monthly salary and a family of four to look after, including a sick father, Yasin believed Malaysia to be a ‘dream destination’ where he would earn enough to provide for his loved ones.

“The men told us we would not have to pay anything now, but that they would later ‘deduct’ 2,600 dollars from each of us once we got jobs in Malaysia,” recounted the frail youth.

“On a sunny morning around the last week of April we were taken along with a larger group of men and women to the deserted island of Shah Porir Dwip, where we boarded a large wooden boat later that same evening.”

A little while into the journey on the Bay of Bengal, at the Chaungthar port located in the city of Pathein in southern Myanmar, a group of Rohingya Muslims joined the party.

This ethnic minority has long faced religious persecution in Myanmar and now contributes hugely to the movement of human beings around this region.

Together with the 10 organisers of the voyage, who turned out to be traffickers, the group numbered close to 130 people. Just how they would reach their destination, or when, none of the passengers knew. Their lives were entirely in the hands of the boat’s crew.

“Horror unfolded as we sailed,” recalled Mohammad Ripon, who also joined the journey at the behest of traffickers from the central Bangladeshi district of Narayanganj.

“Supplies were scarce and food and water was rationed every three days. Many of us vomited as the boat negotiated the mighty waves,” he told IPS.

During the day the crew opened the hatch of the cargo vessel to let in the blistering sun. At night it was kept shut, leaving the passengers to freeze. No one could sleep; the shrieks and cries of sick and frightened passengers kept the entire company awake all night long.

From time to time, the boat stalled on the choppy waters, “probably to change crews”, the passengers told IPS.

But no one knew for sure, and none dared ask for risk of being physically abused or thrown overboard. By this time, their captors had already beaten a number of the passengers for asking too many questions.

After nearly a month and a half of this torture, the Bangladesh Coast Guard steered the boat in to Saint Martin’s island, off the coast of Cox’s Bazar – very close to where the hopeful immigrants had begun their journey.

It was not until the malnourished passengers emerged, with sunken eyes and protruding ribs, that they realised the crew had long since abandoned the ship.

Traffickers exploiting poverty

Though their dreams were dashed, this group is one of the lucky ones; they escaped with their lives, their possessions and their money.

For too many others, these illicit journeys result in being robbed, pitched overboard or even buried in mass graves by networks of smugglers and traffickers who are making a killing by exploiting economically desperate and politically marginalised communities in Southeast Asia.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 88,000 people –mostly poor Bangladeshis and internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar – attempted to cross the borders into Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia in a 15-month period.

This includes 63,000 people between January and December of 2014 and an additional 25,000 in the first quarter of this year.

Of these, an estimated 300 people died at sea in the first quarter of 2015. Since October 2014, 620 people have lost their lives during hazardous, unplanned maritime journeys on the Bay of Bengal.

To make matters worse, the discovery of trafficking rings has prompted governments in the region – particularly Thai and Malaysian authorities – to crack down on irregular arrivals, refusing to allow ships to dock and sometimes going so far as to tow boatloads of people back out to sea despite the presence of desperate and starving people on-board.

From humble aspirations to hazardous journeys

Aspiring migrants from Bangladesh are fleeing poverty and unemployment in this country of close to 157 million people, 31 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

Data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) suggests that the unemployment rate is 4.53 percent, putting the number of out-of-work people here at close to 6.7 million.

Mohammad Hasan, 34, is one of many who dreamed of a more prosperous life in a different country.

A tall, dark welder from Boliadangi, a village in the northwestern Thakurgaon district, he told IPS, “I sold my ancestral land to travel to Malaysia where I hoped to get a welding job in a construction company, because my earnings were not enough to support my six-member family.”

At the time, he was earning less than 100 dollars a month. Feeding seven people on 1,200 Bangladeshi taka (about 15 dollars) a day is no easy task. Desperate, he put his life in the hands of traffickers and set out for the Malaysian coast.

Earlier this year, abandoned by those who had promised them safe passage, he and close to 100 other men were discovered drifting off the coast of Thailand. Fortunately, all of them survived, but the money they paid for the journey was lost.

Forty-one-year-old Kawser Ali from Gangachara, a village in the northern Rangpur District, had a similar tale. He says he made a break for foreign shores because his earnings as a farmer simply weren’t enough to put enough food on the table to keep his eight-member family, including his in-laws, alive.

Millions of people here share his woes: between 60 and 70 percent of Bangladesh’s population relies on agriculture for a livelihood, and the vast majority of them struggle to make ends meet.

Thus it should come as no surprise that Kawser was recently found deep within a forest in Thailand where he and some 50 others had been led by traffickers and abandoned to their own fate.

He told IPS that most of his companions along the journey were marginal farmers, like himself. “We have no fixed income, and can never earn enough to improve our economic condition. I would like to see my son go to a better school, or take my wife to market on a motorbike.”

It is these humble aspirations – together with tales from friends and neighbours who have made the transition successfully – that have led scores of people Kawser to the coast, to board unsafe vessels and put themselves at the mercy of the sea and smugglers in exchange for a chance to make a better life.

Aninda Dutta, a programme associate for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Bangladesh, told IPS, “In Bangladesh, there is a strong link between migration and smuggling, in which a journey that starts through economic motivations may end up as a trafficking case because of the circumstances.”

These ‘circumstances’ include extortionate fees paid to so-called agents, essentially rings of smugglers and human traffickers; beatings and other forms of intimidation and abuse – including sexual abuse – during the journey; theft of all their possessions while at sea; or abandonment, penniless, in various locations – primarily Thailand or Malaysia – where they are subject to the ire of immigration authorities.

In a bid to nip the epidemic in the bud, the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) recently set up more checkpoints to increase vigilance, and proposed that the government tighten regulations regarding the registering of boats.

But until the government tackles the underlying problem of abject poverty, it is unlikely that they will see an end to the exodus any time soon.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

 
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