As desperation swells in the squalid camps that are home to a million Rohingya refugees, long-dormant – and often deadly – trafficking networks are being revived, Bangladeshi officials warn.
Smugglers operating rickety fishing boats prey on the hopes of people who fled violence in Burma (Myanmar), charging them small fortunes for a dangerous journey to South-east Asia, offering an empty promise of a fresh start.
The first vessel to depart Bangladesh for Malaysia since the end of the monsoon was intercepted by law enforcement, who warn others will follow.
Many in the heaving Rohingya ghettos of Cox’s Bazar feel they have no other option but to try to escape, community leaders and aid workers say.
A deal to safely return the persecuted Muslims to Burma has failed, condemning them to limbo and deprivation in fetid camps where they are barred from leaving or looking for work to improve their lot.
Sensing a surge, coastguard patrols have been stepped up since the first boat was detected in November in the Bay of Bengal, said Ikbal Hossain, deputy police chief in Cox’s Bazar.
Another boatload of refugees who fled a camp in Burma were found off the country’s southern coast in November after spending 15 days at sea in a failed attempt to reach Malaysia.
“As the sea turns calm, the smuggling rackets have resumed their activities. But we have a zero-tolerance attitude towards human trafficking,” Mr Hossain told AFP.
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But he said traffickers were difficult to detect in the teeming hills where more than 720,000 Rohingya sought refuge after a brutal crackdown by the Burmese military in August 2017.
Shabeda Begum, a 30-year-old widowed in what UN investigators called ethnic cleansing, said she was approached by another refugee offering to reunite her with a sister and brother-in-law in Malaysia.
The Muslim-majority nation hosts one of the largest overseas Rohingya communities, many of whom arrived by boat from Cox’s Bazar until that smuggling pipeline was closed in 2015.
Read more from the source: THE STRAITS TIMES