ABID AZAD

Things that make you to Think

PART III- Sold into slavery for a few thousand taka

In the wake of the Asian boatpeople crisis, the Dhaka Tribune’s Abid Azad travels down the migration routes along Bangladesh’s jagged coast in search of answers. On the quayside alongside migrant smuggling boats he finds desperation and ambition in equal measure, and finds menacing eddies that portend far more trouble for the migrants than they bargained for. Beyond the horizon, in foreign waters, a vast network of human traffickers lies in wait. For Bangladeshis looking for a back door to a better life, a vast tide of greed and cruelty threatens to sweep away naïve hopes and whole communities with it.

Teknaf, which has the Bay of Bengal on its south and west, and Arakan state of Myanmar on the east beyond the beautiful Naf River, could have become a beautiful tourist zone in the country.

Instead it has now become a hub for human traffickers and human smugglers, and has gradually become a threatening place for tourists and local inhabitants.

“I cannot remember when I last walked on the beach. Except for the main Teknaf beach, we are scared to visit any place in Teknaf for fear of kidnapping,” said local inhabitant Mozammal Hoq while walking with this reporter from Teknaf beach to Khurer Mukh and Katabunia area.

“We are passing such risky places like Khurer Mukh, Katabunia, and Kachubunia. All these are among the major points for traffickers to start voyage towards Thailand-Malaysia. No one dares to walk here alone,” he added.

Both smugglers and traffickers have worked hard to expand their networks to get people to Malaysia in any way they can over the last few years.

Brokers term the Malaysia-bound people “buffaloes,” according to the victims.

To identify them, brokers use different types of identification marks on the bodies of those being trafficked, like buffaloes have during selling and purchase.

Some have alphabets or signs to identify the different brokers, while others have hand belts of different colours.

Raihan’s story

Md Raihan is an 18-year-old who was captured in Moheshkhali area of Cox’s Bazar when he wanted to go to Malaysia for employment in April last year.

Raihan was the only kidnapped boy who returned alive after he experienced the horror of life as a slave in both Thailand and Malaysia.

He revealed to the Dhaka Tribune how brokers play their roles.

After two days and a night, the boat he was in reached Shita Pahar from Moheshkhali and he was shifted to another cargo boat where around 300 people were kept forcefully at gunpoint, he said.

“When we reached Thailand all of us were divided into two big groups – those who could pay money and those who could not.

“Of the 300 persons, the women were sold separately. Different buyers bought them. Those buyers never buy any men but only women.

“Another group bought several people to send them for work on a rubber plantation in Thailand for about three-five years,” Raihan told the Dhaka Tribune.

“Another broker named Hazi bought 25 of us including me for Malaysian Ringgit 6,000 each. He later sold us to another Malaysian buyer.”

The brokers

Brokers maintain a strong network to operate their business from both inside and outside the country.

In Bangladesh, the first tier of brokers collect people who are interested to go to Malaysia.

These brokers influence people in any way they can, as their main target is collecting people by any means.

The first tier brokers have a good number of associates around the country who are also working to collect people.

According to the Cox’s Bazar police, so far they have found people from as many as 30 districts in the country who came to Cox’s Bazar and Teknaf area to go to Malaysia through sea route.

The BGB commanding officer in Teknaf told the Dhaka Tribune: “Mostly people come from Sirajganj, Narsingdi, Satkhira, Jessore, and Jhenaidah.”

The Malaysia-bound people are later sold for Tk5,000-20,000 to the second tier brokers.

The price of people varies according to the distance. People from Teknaf area are sold at Tk3,000-5,000, while the going rate is Tk10,000 for Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong area and as much as Tk20,000 for people from Dhaka or other districts.

The safe houses

Once they have brought them from the first tier brokers, the second tier brokers transport their unfortunate victims to safe houses where they are kept.

The safe houses are unremarkable from the outside and all are situated close to the sea. They are little more than shacks, mostly made of bamboo and polythene or tin sheets.

When they have collected a good number, the brokers then send them to a ship, anchored near Shita Pahar in Myanmar, first through small fishing boats, locally known as tangkhoano, that can carry 15-20 people, then on a bigger fishing boat, carrying 150-250 voyagers, and then taken to the anchored ship.

Shita Pahar is about 15-20km south-west from Shah Porir Dwip and 30-40km from Teknaf. The journey from Teknaf takes five-six hours.

Shita Pahar is not a port for ships but a safe zone for trafficking. Different kinds of ships including large boats remain anchored there.

This is safe for the traffickers, because if the Myanmar navy moves forward to catch them they enter into the Bangladesh sea territory and if the Bangladesh navy makes a move, they enter into the Myanmar sea territory.

The second tier brokers sell their purchased people to the third tier brokers on the ships for Tk25,000-30,000.

The voyage begins

The third tier brokers bring the Malaysia-bound people to Thailand initially.

People who can pay are helped to cross the Thailand-Malaysia border, and people who cannot pay are sold to another gang who purchase people to work as modern day slaves in plantations.

However, often even those who say they are willing to pay are forced into working as plantation slaves while the women are sold into prostitution.

It depends on the whim of the third tier brokers, said sources. If a man is handed over to a kidnapping gang, only God knows what will happen to him, they told the Dhaka Tribune.

If the third tier broker works only to bring people to Malaysia, he will send them to Malaysia after receiving payment, but if he is a slave businessman, then he will sell everyone of his purchased people.

The minute the people are brought to the Thailand jungle, the third tier brokers start all kinds of torture. They then make phone calls to their relatives to get the money.

The transaction is processed through mobile banking accounts or actual bank accounts between the victims’ families and the brokers.

This is how the third tier brokers make back their investment. They charge anywhere from Tk1,80,000 per person, depending on how much they have had to lay out.

The traffickers torture their victims in order to expedite payment and many die from this torture or from illness or malnutrition during this time, waiting for the ransom payments to arrive.

Those who fail to pay are sold as slaves.

Side story

The old ways no longer pay

Most of the land which were once used for salt cultivation in Teknaf, some 80km south of Cox’s Bazar, are now to be found vacant.

“Almost seven years ago, the price for 40kg salt was Tk250-300 which is now Tk100. The salt cultivators are left counting huge losses,” said Mizanur Rahman.

Teknaf was once also famous for betel leaf cultivation, but now for many years the farmers have had a hard time making a living from it.

“About eight years ago, we spent around Tk3.5 lakh for 10,000 betel plants from which we earned Tk6-7 lakh. Today, the cost remains the same as before but now we barely earn Tk1-1.5 lakh,” Md Zubair told the Dhaka Tribune at the Noapara Bazar one Sunday, a weekly haat day for betel leaf.

The situation of supari (areca nut) cultivation is also the same.

In addition, during the last few years, labour cost has gone through the roof, said several farmers.

The Teknaf upazila agriculture officer Abdul Latif told the Dhaka Tribune: “For many years now, the agriculture business has not been good enough due to political unrest in the country, while irrigation is the remaining main problem for cultivation here.”

Day by day the agricultural land has been decreasing rapidly due to a lack of sufficient irrigation system, while due to climate change and high temperature most of the land is affected by severe salinity, he said.

During the rainy season, Aman rice is cultivated on 11,000 hectares of land in the area, but this goes down to only 1,200 hectares during the Boro season because of irrigation crisis, he added.

As the agriculture business has become less profitable, people lose hope of earning a living from it.

During our investigation, several farmers told the Dhaka Tribune that they are afraid to continue cultivation as they see no hope for the future.

Human Trafficking In Our Times-II: Why risk your life on the open seas?

Human Trafficking In Our Times-I: The deadly route to Malaysia

Read all parts of HUMAN TRAFFICKING SPECIAL

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