Dreams of better future luring Rohingyas to become trafficking victims

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15 Rohingyas die, dozens missing as trawler capsizes in Bay; 72 rescued alive, including two alleged brokers; UN offers assistance for responding to the needs of the survivors

A large number of Rohingyas, who sheltered in Bangladesh fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, are risking their lives frequently being lured by human traffickers to seek fortune abroad by taking sea voyage by boat.

Largely women and children, living in different camps at Ukhia and Teknaf upazilas in Cox’s Bazar, are now escaping the eye of law enforcers and are taking desperate journeys via sea- particularly to Malaysia and Thailand- for a better living. 

Some of them successfully arrive at destination, while many of them are caught by Bangladeshi law enforcers in mid of their journeys.

A group of the latest batch headed to Malaysia through a trawler on Tuesday, but their trawler sank mid of journey, yet again sheds light on the necessity for putting more focus on the matter.

At least 15 Rohingyas died as a trawler en route to Malaysia that carried them capsized near Saint Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal on early Tuesday. 

The deceased includes 12 women and three children though their identities are yet to be confirmed, said Lt Commander Nayeemul Haq of Bangladesh Coast Guard’s Saint Martin’s Island station.

As of last night, 72 Rohingyas have been rescued and given primary treatment, the coast guard official said.

He said search for the missing people was ongoing.

The trawler, presumed carrying 138 people, sailed for Malaysia from the Noakalia Para coastal region under Teknaf upazila around 3am on Tuesday, and sank 3 nautical miles off the island later. 

Lt Commander Nayeemul said on information, members of the coast guard went to the spot and started the rescue operation. 

Meanwhile, divers pulled out the sunken trawler from the seabed, said the coast guard official, adding that all of the rescued Rohingyas will be brought back to Teknaf. 

Bangladesh Navy’s Saint Martin Station Commander Zahidul Haque said they have identified two people as brokers among 72 people rescued.

Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director Lt Col Abdullah Ibn Zaid said: “Alongside the coast guard ship Mansoor Ali, Bangladesh Navy ships — Durjoy and Korotoa – were also in the rescue operation.”

Bangladesh has been hosting over 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in camps in Cox’s Bazar. Of them, more than 730,000 Rohingyas crossed over to Bangladesh in the latest episode of exodus, which began in August 2017, fleeing violent persecution carried out by Myanmar security forces and civilians.

While briefing media in the evening, Lt Sohel Rana, station commander of Teknaf Coast Guard, said: “The boat hit a coral reef and sank off Saint Martin’s Island.”

He said they have identified four human traffickers, but did not disclose their identities.

The bodies were handed over the local police station, he added.

Why risking own lives?

Refugees are easy victims for traffickers, as they lack the means to make an income as well as other basic facilities, said activists working in the sector. 

Each year several hundreds of Rohingyas try to go to Malaysia or Indonesia by sea, risking their lives in the perilous journeys. Lured by traffickers, most people attempt the journeys before March, when the sea usually remains calm.

Many of them take up this risky journey to Malaysia as many of their relatives are living in majority Muslim country. 

“My husband lives in Malaysia for last five years. It was a dream for me to meet him there, but the dream did not fulfilled,” said Rajuma Akter, a Rohingya who was at the capsized trawler.

Lt Sohel Rana, station commander of Teknaf Coast Guard, said all the agencies including BGB are continually keeping eyes on them, but sometimes they manage to escape.

Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen on Tuesday said the Malaysia-bound trawler that sank in the Bay was carrying the Rohingyas who used to live outside the camps and they were trying to move away illegally.

While talking to reporters after attending an event at the National Museum, the minister stressed the need for strengthening the camp’s security to prevent illegal migration.

“Such tragic incidents are caused by desperation. Persecuted in their home country of Myanmar and confined to refugee camps in Bangladesh, Rohingya families, including children, are willing to risk their lives on dangerous sea journeys in order to escape a life of misery and suffering,” Athena Rayburn, Save the Children’s Humanitarian Advocacy Manager in Cox’s Bazar, said.

“With no prospect of return anytime soon, Rohingya refugee children will continue to be a lost generation with little or no opportunity to improve their lives,” she said.

She urged the government to allow access to basic services including formal and accredited education for Rohingya children so that they can be able to continue to learn and develop skills they’ll need in the future when they can go back to Myanmar. 

“The tragic drowning of women and children in the Bay of Bengal today (Tuesday) should be a wakeup call for all of us,” she said.

Irregular boat movements are not new to the Cox’s Bazar district, as both Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis risk the unsafe journey to travel abroad due to compelling circumstances, said a joint statement by IOM and UNHCR issued on Tuesday.

It said the IOM and UNHCR are closely liaising with Bangladesh government first responders to the tragic boat capsizing.

“UNHCR and IOM are saddened by this tragic loss of life and, together with our other UN and NGO partners, are standing by to offer assistance to the Government in responding to the needs of the survivors, be it food, shelter or medical aid,” it said.

Whether these Rohingyas from Bangladesh, who chooses bay to travel to Malaysia, ever reaches to their destined countries or loses life in mid of somewhere is not clear, but the perilous journey continues over the time.

In 2015, authorities discovered over 30 bodies in a decayed shape at an abandoned jungle camp in the Sadao district of Thailand’s southern Songkhla province, which borders with Malaysia.

International media cited the place as a waiting area for the migrants before they were sneaked through the border into Malaysia.

The mass grave was reportedly of Bangladeshi and Myanmar migrants. A Bangladeshi national was also rescued alive at that time.

A long wait for a human trafficking tribunal

It has been seven years since the government passed the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act-2012, but constitution of a special tribunal to exclusively handle human trafficking cases, a major provision of the act, has remained unimplemented.

In an effort to prevent human trafficking and punish criminals, the all-important act was passed and later the rules of the act were formulated in 2017. 

But any special tribunal, required to try cases filed under this act, has not been instituted till to date.

Bangladesh, which is now on the Tier-2 watch list for the third time, might be blacklisted if the situation worsens. Failure to implement the provision might push Bangladesh into Tier-3, said activists working in the sector.

The data of Trafficking in Persons cell of the police department and court records show perpetrators in only 33 cases had been prosecuted over the past six years, which was a mere 0.5% of the total number of cases.

Chief Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain, in November last year, said seven special tribunals for the trials of human trafficking related cases will be formed soon.