Bangladeshis Risk Lives in Quest for Better Prospects

By Shahriar Sharif and Jesmin Papri

2015-05-21
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150521-BD-migrants-620 Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants who were rescued at sea rest in a makeshift shelter inside a sports facility in Lhoksukon, Indonesia, May 13, 2015.
AFP

A lull has settled over the riverfront area in Teknaf, Bangladesh that locals call “Malaysia Airport” because it has long served as a gateway for illegal maritime migration toward Southeast Asia.

Over the years countless Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state – just across the border – have boarded smugglers’ boats at Teknaf and some 60 other embarkation points in southeastern Bangladesh to undertake the dangerous sea crossing in search of better lives abroad.

Such activity has died down in recent days amid a government crackdown on human traffickers operating along the border. But experts predict it will pick up again after the world loses interest in the plight of thousands of migrants who are now stranded at sea and those who have made it to shore in Southeast Asia.

“This problem cannot be wished away overnight, as it has grown over the years,” Tasneem Siddiqui, a professor at Dhaka University and chairperson of the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit, told BenarNews.

“The reality is that illegal migration has surged because job seekers are finding it hard to go overseas legally,” she said.

While religious persecution and economic deprivation in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar cause the Rohingyas to flee abroad, economic hardship and dim domestic job prospects drive Bangladeshis to pay traffickers huge sums of money to transport them by sea to more prosperous countries, experts say.

“It’s mainly a lack of opportunities at home that drive them to seek a better life in Malaysia and Thailand, which often leads to drowning, and those who are lucky to survive invariably face untold suffering in the jungles of those countries,” Omar Faruk Chowdhury, executive director of the Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (Migrants’ Development Program), told BenarNews.

Jungle misery

Kamal Hossain is a Bangladeshi who boarded a smuggler’s boat at Malaysia Airport for the southward journey across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

In 2013, when he was 22, Hossain and hundreds of other passengers sailed for eight days until their boat landed in Thailand. There, smugglers took him into the jungle and immediately subjected him to torture as they demanded ransom money, he said.

“After about a week they asked for two lakh taka [U.S. $2,573] from my family back home in return for my release,” Hossain told BenarNews by phone from Teknaf.

His impoverished father somehow managed to raise 180,000 taka (U.S. $2,316), which he paid to brokers in Teknaf.

“The smugglers then took me to Malaysia and abandoned me there,” Hossain said.

In Malaysia, he worked illegally, moving from place to place out of fear that police would catch him. He eventually decided to return to Bangladesh, and his father sold his last plot of land to pay for his son’s homeward plane ticket.

Nations should coordinate policies: expert

Human trafficking from southeastern Bangladesh has gone on for the past two decades. But it exploded in 2012 when an exodus of Rohingya, fleeing sectarian violence in Rakhine, spilled across the border.

Human smugglers exploited the situation.

They began luring desperate Rohingyas, as well as Bangladeshis seeking better opportunities abroad, to go to Malaysia, a prosperous Muslim country that was initially sympathetic to their plight.

As the illegal trade surged, Malaysia began to tighten its borders.

According to Tasneem Siddiqui, the situation became even worse in 2012 when Malaysia stopped taking in legal migrants from Bangladesh. The two countries later that year struck a deal by which Malaysia agreed to take in another 50,000 legal Bangladeshi migrant workers per year, but only 7,000 have migrated legally to Malaysia since then.

In order to find a permanent solution to the growing crisis of human trafficking and illegal migration, she recommends that the affected countries of Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh set up a joint commission to tackle the problem together.

“The task of the commission should be to encourage legal migration so that more people from Bangladesh and Myanmar can seek legal employment in Malaysia and Thailand,” Siddiqui said.

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