Almost every Rohingya family in the unregistered refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf in Bangladesh can report at least one family member lost at sea. These individuals are not fishermen, but daring souls attempting to migrate to Malaysia, seeking better jobs and a brighter future.
They board fishing boats with almost no safety measures, and only a few lucky ones survive.
One of those lucky ones is 16-year-old Mahbub Alam.
Accompanied by 55 Rohingyas and 23 Bangladeshis, Mahbub boarded a fishing boat in early November 2012. He was rescued by the Bangladeshi Coast Guard the next day as the overloaded vessel capsized near Saint Martin’s Island, located at the southern tip of Bangladesh’s border.
“I had paid 30,000 taka to a Bangladeshi agent who arranged the trip,” Mahbub told The Express Tribune while he, along with 36 other survivors of the tragic incident, were taken to Cox’s Bazar prison.
Only six months ago, Mahbub used to work as a plumber in the Maung Daw area of Myanmar’s Arakan state. His family was among the thousands who fled ethnic riots at home that broke out this past June. They snuck into Bangladesh overnight, under the cloak of darkness, only to be forced to reside in one of the country’s unregistered refugee camps.
“I am willing to work but here they (locals) don’t let me work. If someone even hires me for a day, they pay me merely one-fourth of what they pay a local person for the same job,” he explained. He added that his livelihood is the reason why he opted for the risky journey to Malaysia. “When you have no hope, risking life to reach another place for a better future is worth it,” he said.
According to the Bangladesh Coast Guard, at least 350 would-be refugees have reportedly drowned in the sea since July 2012. This figure, however, reflects only those incidents that have been reported by survivors or their families. Actual numbers could be much higher, a senior official of the maritime security force told The Express Tribune, requesting anonymity.
“There is no record of how many Rohingyas have been lost at sea while attempting to migrate,” Bangladesh Border Guard Lieutenant Colonel Zahid Hasan admitted. He said that Rohingyas get on a boat at night in the guise of fishermen, and that their families can’t even report them missing to the law-enforcement authorities because they don’t exist in the official record.
Teknaf Police Sub-Inspector Mahmud Ratan also said that more and more Rohingyas are now risking their lives by attempting to migrate on these boats. He added that it is difficult to restrain them. “Once they are apprehended, we deport them back to Myanmar after a short trial,” SI Ratan added.
Additionally, The Express Tribune has found that at least 25 trafficking rackets are active in and around the Rohingya refugee camps. They lure frustrated youth to take this risk. Each person is charged Tk35,000 to Tk50,000 for the dangerous journey. Almost every racket is headed by an influential political figure of the locality. It is because of their influence that victims don’t report them to the police.
The sea is not the only route they take putting their lives at risk. Hundreds of them have been arrested at Dhaka International Airport in recent months. After managing a fake Bangladeshi passport, many try to illegally migrate to Malaysia by air.
“Such attempts are on the rise,” Hasanul Haider, Commanding Officer of Airport Armed Police (AAP) told The Express Tribune. Haider says that these Rohingyas are mostly caught at immigration when their fake passports go under the scanner.
However, the language barrier proves to be too much for the would-be refugees. “Most try to travel to Malaysia with tourist visas and can’t even reply to our simple queries in Bangla,” said Haider.
Among the last group that the AAP caught at the airport with a fake passport was Mohammad Harun, 22. “A Bangladeshi travel agent promised me a decent job in Kuala Lumpur,” said Harun who had already paid Tk70,000.
“I wanted to reach Malaysia somehow and earn for my family who lives illegally in an unregistered refugee camp at Teknaf,” Harun said while he was waiting to be taken to the Dhaka Airport police station.
Out of sheer desperation, Rohingya youth like Mahbub Alam and Mohammad Harun not only risked their lives but also lost hefty sums of money to fraudulent travel agents. They will eventually be sent back into Myanmar, where the risk of getting caught in sectarian violence still looms large.
The question is whether these arrests, humiliation and deportation will restrain the Rohingya youth from putting their lives at risk. The answer can be found in Mahbub and Harun’s words.
No matter how many times they arrest and deport us, the desire to get a job in Malaysia will stay alive, they said, emphatically.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 31st, 2013.
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