Teknaf, the south-eastern-most tip of Bangladesh, has become a major criminal hub and safe haven out of which national and transnational criminal gangs freely operate.
Until a few years ago, Teknaf was notorious for its connection to illegal drug smuggling, mainly of yaba tablets produced across the border in Myanmar; now human trafficking has become the big money game in town.
As a result, Teknaf, located roughly 100km down the coast from Cox’s Bazar, has become the epicentre of organised crime in Bangladesh.
Myanmar shares a 271km border with Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar and Bandarban districts, of which 54km of frontier lies in Teknaf upazila alone.
The nearly 271km border between Bangladesh and Myanmar is divided into two parts – a 64km zero line boundary on the Naf River and a 208km land boundary.
According to inhabitants of the area, local representatives, human rights activists and NGO workers and law enforcement does virtually nothing and criminals operate with impunity in Teknaf and the whole Cox’s Bazar area.
Impact on human security
Former election commissioner Brig Gen (retired) Sakhawat Hussain said: “Definitely the human trafficking issue in Teknaf is a threat to our national security. Now the whole picture of Teknaf has been revealed by this issue.”
“Human trafficking has now become a big issue. But the drug business also flourishes there and there are huge possibilities for arms dealing through the Teknaf area, since all of these types of crime are connected with each other,” he said.
He further said: “Bangladesh’s national security is facing a crisis. We have already seen that Myanmar’s Border Guard Police (BGP) are attacking our Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) personnel. They have even abducted our soldiers.”
“But the government does not seem to be as concerned about this matter as they should be. At the same time, law enforcement agencies do not arrest the culprits who have been exposed in the media,” he added.
“Rohingyas are now becoming another problem. They are illegally getting passports, too. Although a large number of them are going to Malaysia on this route, they are being branded Bangladeshi. So, all in all, Bangladesh is going to face several different kinds of problems,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
According to human rights activist Nur Khan: “A large amount of money has been illegally sent abroad due to human trafficking, illegal migration, drug smuggling, and the hundi business.”
Smuggling drugs into Bangladesh through this region has long been a serious problem, he told the Dhaka Tribune.
“If this continues, it will not be long before we see this sea route as a conduit for arms trafficking and the arms business,” he added.
“Earlier, people in our country were mostly involved in criminal activities inside the country. Now, human trafficking has allowed them to develop a well-organised transnational connection beyond the country’s borders. Although they are still at the bottom of the ladder, people smuggling and human trafficking have inducted them into the world of transnational crime,” Khan told the Dhaka Tribune.
Bangladeshi brokers mostly work to recruit Malaysia-bound fortune-seekers from all over the country. They get paid according to the number of migrants they can get on board a boat or a ship, allowing them to earn a huge amount of money.
But this is barely a drop in the bucket in comparison with the total ransom amount collected by brokers in Thailand or Malaysia.
Somewhere between Bangladesh and Malaysia, the business plan transforms from people smuggling into human trafficking – and, for some victims whose families fail to pay the ransom, descends into a kind of forced labour that is slavery in all but name.
The entire process is thus conducted by brokers from Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.
The Dhaka Tribune has learned that Myanmar’s Sittwe area, locally known to both traffickers and migrants as “Shita Pahar,” is controlled by brokers and gangs from Myanmar, while the main business is mostly controlled by brokers in Thailand.
Whereas a Bangladeshi broker may earn at most Tk20,000 for each voyager, a broker in Thailand or Malaysia can earn as much as Tk180,000 for each one.
Bangladesh thus loses both potential human resources and, at the same time, a huge amount of money which ends up in the pockets of brokers in other countries.
Bangladeshis are caged, tortured and ransomed by foreign traffickers while the reach of foreign criminal organisations and their local associates grow stronger and more wealthy on its borders.
It is not inconceivable that future inroads of transnational crime into Bangladesh may be financed by the very ransom payments now being paid out to secure the release of Bangladeshi citizens from human traffickers in South-East Asia.
Human Trafficking In Our Times-VI: The traffickers of Teknaf
Human Trafficking In Our Times-V: How modern slavers prey on Bangladeshi
Human Trafficking In Our Times-IV: Bangladesh’s crime coast
Human Trafficking In Our Times-III: Sold into slavery for a few thousand taka
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