Bangladeshi boatmen are ferrying Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar in rickety vessels, despite a police crackdown following accidents in which almost 200 people drowned during the past two months.
Within a span of about three hours on Thursday, BenarNews reporters witnessed at least 100 members of the uprooted minority – mostly women and children – arrive in separate boats at Dakhin Para, mainland Bangladesh's southernmost tip that lies along the porous border with Myanmar.
The refugees said they were picked up from the Myanmar side by boats in the dead of the night and dropped off at Shah Porir Dwip, a remote Bangladeshi fishing village some 5 km (3 miles) from the mainland. The island’s west coast opens to the Bay of Bengal.
Nuruddin, who did not want his full name disclosed, admitted to taking his boat to the Myanmar side after dark to pick up Rohingya.
“[It takes] a little under two hours each way,” the 56-year-old former fisherman told BenarNews, as he stared blankly at a group of men struggling to bring their fishing boat ashore. “I don’t like fishing anymore. I make more money now than I did fishing.”
Asked how much he charged each Rohingya for the boat ride to the Bangladeshi side, he said: “Sometimes 3,000 taka (U.S. $36), sometimes 4,000 ($48), sometimes even more. It depends on how much they have. Whatever they have, I take.
“I have to take out the cost of fuel. Besides, it’s a risky journey. So many people have died in these waters,” he added.
On Sept. 28, a boat carrying about 80 Rohingya capsized just 1,000 feet from the shore there, killing at least 50 people – most of them children – in the deadliest accident of its kind since the latest mass exodus of the Muslim minority group from Myanmar began in the last week of August.
More than 600,000 Rohingya have arrived in southeastern Bangladesh from predominantly Buddhist Myanmar since its military launched a counteroffensive in response to attacks by militants in Rakhine state on Aug. 25, according to the latest estimates from the United Nations.
Nuruddin said he undertook two trips a day during the initial days of the refugee crisis, picking up anywhere between 25 and 40 Rohingya during each visit.
“But now the police have become very strict. They’ve ordered us not to bring the refugees by boat. So I go at night, about two or three times a week,” he said.
At least 190 people have died since Aug. 25 while trying to cross over to Bangladesh via the Naf River, which lies to the east of Shah Porir Dwip, or the Bay of Bengal.
About 450 arrested, 155 boats destroyed
Deaths from the accidents have prompted local authorities to crack down on boatmen ferrying Rohingya, who in Myanmar are considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s military crackdown took place after Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) insurgents launched an offensive in Rakhine state. The military operations, labeled as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” by the United Nations, spurred the Rohingya influx into Bangladesh.
Since it began in late August, Bangladesh border authorities have arrested and detained about 450 people suspected of transporting refugees through waters that divide Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Last month, local police seized and destroyed 155 boats, Teknaf upazila (sub-district) police chief Mainuddin Khan told BenarNews.
“Some people are still bringing Rohingya to Bangladesh on boats. We will find them and arrest them soon,” he said.
Bangladeshi border officials describe the ferrying of Rohingya as human trafficking. In September, authorities announced that they would crack down on fishermen who were asking refugees for money to transport them to safety.
Fisherman Mohahmmad Harun, 38, also a resident of Shah Porir Dwip, said he used to take one trip daily to Myanmar to pick up Rohingya during the initial days of the crisis, but had “completely stopped” after the police crackdown.
“The last time I went was about a month ago. I would pick up about 30 to 40 refugees, charging each person between 3,000 taka (U.S. $36) and 4,000 taka ($48). I did that for about one month, but I don’t do it anymore,” he told BenarNews.
Harun’s colleague and next-door neighbor, Nurul Amin, 40, said it was a quick and easy way to make money “as long as we returned safe and sound.”
“I don’t have my own boat, so I used to rent one for 40,000 taka ($481) a day. That meant I would have to make two to three trips to the Myanmar side every day. I used to carry a lot more people on the boat at one time than Harun did so I could make a decent profit,” he told BenarNews.
Both Harun and Amin said that if police allowed them to do so, they would make the trips to Myanmar again to bring the Rohingya to Bangladesh.
“They are suffering there. The army is killing them, burning their villages. We feel happy if we can help them. And if in the process we can make a little extra money, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Amin said.
‘We are desperate, they know it’
But Rohingya refugees who arrived Thursday on mainland Bangladesh refuted the fishermen’s claims.
“There are a two to three Bangladeshi boats waiting on the Myanmar side every night to pick up Rohingya,” Mohammad Hashim, 42, told BenarNews after arriving in Bangladesh with his wife, five sons and his mother. This was his second trip to the country in the last 10 days.
“Two weeks ago, the Myanmar army soldiers came to our village and began firing indiscriminately. Many people, including my cousin, died. Two bullets pierced my father’s arm and shoulder,” Hashim said.
After hiding his family in a forest a short distance from his village, Hashim carried his father on his back for five days until he reached the river, where a Bangladeshi boatman agreed to take him and his severely injured 80-year-old father across the border for 2,000 taka ($24), he said.
But by the time he reached the Chittagong Medical College, his father died.
“I buried him here and went back to Myanmar to bring my family,” he said.
He paid 7,000 taka ($84) for each member of his family to get to the other side.
“We are desperate, they know it. So they charge whatever they want,” the farmer said before making his way to Teknaf in search of a new home for his family.
Abdur Rahman in Cox’s Bazar contributed to this report.