KOLKATA and BANGKOK - Dubious agents are making huge profits from smuggling Rohingya Muslims through the organization of risky boat voyages from Bangladesh to destinations in Southeast Asia. The underground racket has accentuated the plight of one of Asia'smost persecuted and desperate minority groups.
An Asia Times Online investigation based on interviews with recent migrants has found that each Rohingya who takes to sea in one of these often leaky and antiquated vessels piloted by unprofessional seamen is required to pay between 30,000 to 35,000 Bangladesh taka (US$480) for the perilous journey. This is
a huge sum for the impoverished Rohingya.
There is no guarantee that when they arrive in Southeast Asia, usually in either Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand, that they will not be arrested or forced back out to sea without adequate provisions. For those that successfully slip past border police, they are often herded onto remote rubber plantations situated along the Malaysian-Thai border.
There, the Rohingya are frequently pressured to call on their families back in Bangladesh to send more money or face bodily harm. These rubber plantations are usually either run or hired by the agents, who are often religious leaders themselves from the Rohingya community. Many have settled into Malaysia or Thailand where they themselves illegally migrated.
Only after the smuggled Rohingya are able to muster more funds - usually between 5,000 to 10,000 taka - and transfer them to the agent's personal bank account are they taken to certain safe house mosques in Malaysia. From there, they are left to fend for themselves.
"These plantations are actually torture chambers," claims a researcher based in Bangladesh who has closely tracked the human smuggling route. 'Musclemen hired by the agents beat, torture and threaten the Rohingyas to shell out more money," he said.
The researcher spoke on condition of anonymity because he lives in the same neighborhood as one of the trade's biggest agents, who he referred to only as "Rahim", and fears reprisals for revealing the agents' methods and abuses.
He claims Rahim owns a rubber plantation in Sungai Kolok, on the Thai side of the border in the insurgency-plagued province of Narathiwat, which is a key passage point in the smuggling route. Rohingya have in certain instances been rounded up as part of military sweeps against armed insurgents operating in the areas.
But Rahim and his smuggling associates continue to operate freely in area, according to some Rohingya who now live and work in Malaysia and are familiar with his smuggling activities.
Many smuggled Rohingya have been interviewed in detail by the Arakan Project, a research-based advocacy group funded by Western donors to monitor the situation of Rohingya in Myanmar and other countries and promote their protection as legitimate refugees. In those interviews, they claimed that smuggling agents maintained "good contacts" with both Thai and Malaysian immigration officials.
"Our people are taken to this plantation in small groups but if we are caught and deported by the Malaysians, the agents and their people catch up with us because they seem to know exactly the point where we have been deported," said one middle-aged Rohingya male working in Kuala Lumpur.
"They bring us back to Malaysia after a few days in the plantation, but only after our families have transferred more money to the bank accounts of the agents ... We are dropped in some mosques where we stay for a few days before we land menial jobs in towns and then slowly make our way to more populated centers where fellow Rohingyas find us jobs because we have kinship networks," he said.
Not all Rohingya migrants smuggled into Southeast Asia are as lucky. Many who have been illegally smuggled to Thailand have been rounded up and deported to Myanmar through the land border crossing at Mae Sot. Many subsequently sneak back to Thailand and are smuggled to Malaysia by agents, according to a Rohingya woman who was once deported at Mae Sot and now lives in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.
Others organized by the agents have been pushed back to sea by Thai naval authorities, in certain instances on boats without engines and adequate food and water. The Thai military stands accused by rights groups of forcing a group of 1,000 Rohingya back to sea in 2009. It's unclear how many survived the ordeal, though some rights groups estimate as many as half of them perished.
Earlier this year three boats with 91 Rohingya passengers destined for Malaysia drifted onto a Thai beach and were pushed back to sea without adequate provisions. They eventually drifted over 700 kilometers to India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where upon landing they were administered emergency medical treatment.
Last year Indonesia rescued over 400 Rohingya boat people who had arrived in it's coastal waters in rickety boats. In a rare rebuke, Indonesia criticized Thailand's practice of towing Rohingya back out to sea and said it would consider giving those who arrived on it's shores refugee status. (Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has said he considers the Rohingya economic migrants rather than refugees.)
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, said that Rohingyas who previously fled to Bangladesh to escape persecution in their native Arakan province of Myanmar previously often migrated onward to Pakistan through India. Many of the women ended up in Karachi's flesh trade and the men in the fishing industry, she said.
Lewa's research shows that over the past six or seven years Rohingya migration patterns have shifted from east to west after Pakistan descended into chaos and violence and India created a stronger, less porous border fence along its shared border with Bangladesh. As a result, many Rohingyas started to look east to Malaysia, Indonesia and other destinations in Southeast Asia.
To meet that demand and profit off the desperation, smuggling syndicates with increasing regional reach have developed and evolved in Bangladesh. And all indications are that business will remain brisk for the foreseeable future.
'Now as Bangladesh threatens to repatriate [to Myanmar] the Rohingya refugees who have remained in that country, they get more and more desperate to seek a safe and decent livelihood," said Lewa.
Subir Bhaumik is chief of news operations at a leading Indian TV channel and a known specialist on Northeast India and Bangladesh.
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