Since 1996, human smugglers and traffickers have thrived in Teknaf and, supported by massive profits, have built up a recruitment network throughout the country.
According to local inhabitants and officials, the trafficking business could not have developed without four key persons in the Teknaf area: the local MP, UP chairman, upazila chairman and panel mayor of the municipality.
Allegations of these powerful individuals’ links to organised crime are an open secret in Teknaf.
A Bangla national daily newspaper reported that MP Abdur Rahman Bodi topped a police and intelligence agency list of players of the three top criminal activities in Teknaf – human trafficking, yaba smuggling and illegally naturalising Rohingya immigrants, as well as illegal hundi business.
He was listed along with 26 of his relatives.
In Teknaf, there are two factions of the Awami League – one is pro-MP Bodi and the other anti-Bodi.
The anti-Bodi faction is led by union parishad Chairman Nurul Alam, recently selected as Teknaf Jubo League president.
A follower of former AL MP Mohammad Ali, Nurul has built up his own group to carry out his political activities, and to fight against Bodi and his supporters.
On the other hand, Bodi and upazila Chairman Jafar are on the same side.
Police and BGB officials are wary of going on record about political patronage for human traffickers, saying they fear reprisals from high levels of the government.
The Dhaka Tribune has learned that local representatives have benefited from the illegal trade. Some have invested financially in human smuggling and trafficking operations.
Traffickers and people smuggling brokers provide manpower and funding for election campaigns, it was learned.
Sources said MP Bodi had asked local representatives to raise funds for him to be able to make large donations to the poor.
“But think about it … Where does Bodi get all this money from and how do all of his followers raise so much money for him?” asked a BGB official.
A local union parishad member in Teknaf, on condition of anonymity, said: “If we name traffickers, we will face tremendous pressure. They are very wealthy. Even if they are caught, it will not take much time to secure bail.”
The Teknaf economy largely depends on human trafficking, the yaba trade, illegal naturalisation of the Rohingyas and other illegal activities, locals said.
But in Teknaf, police and local representatives are wary of publishing a formal list of suspects of everyone – from top to bottom – believed to be involved in human trafficking or the yaba business.
Human rights activists have called for a probe into the income and assets, over the last decade, held by MP Bodi and other Teknaf members of parliament, chairmen, law enforcement personnel and locally powerful persons.
They also asked: where does all this illegal money go?
Although both law enforcement and local elected officials have been implicated in organised crime by Teknaf inhabitants, no local representative or law enforcement official has so far been brought before the law.
Yet it is widely believed that human trafficking could not take place without the complicity of government officials.
On May 26, the Dhaka Tribune reported that a recent intelligence report submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office said that because of the direct involvement of law enforcement agencies with these rackets, investigations into these cases see little or no progress.
A separate report was also submitted to the Home Ministry recommending action against 24 police officials.
The report said only 688 cases out of 2,501 cases filed since 2004 over incidents of human trafficking have been disposed of, according to the Police Headquarters monitoring cell.
Since the trafficking business took off in 1996, no accurate data has been compiled on how many people have attempted to migrate, how many have died, or how many have gone missing.
According to a report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), between June 2013 and June 2014 more than 53,000 people fled by sea from the Bangladesh-Myanmar border region.
Executive Director Abul Kashem of the NGO HELP Cox’s Bazar, who has worked on anti-trafficking issues since 2011, said: “Often, officials are not aware about what trafficking is. They evade the issue saying that people go to Malaysia of their own accord.”
Kashem says: “Traffickers carry out their activities under the shelter of protection provided by their patrons.”
But several chairmen in Teknaf denied involvement in human trafficking. One even denied it was a problem there.
Teknaf upazila Chairman Jafar Ahmed claimed: “There is no human trafficking in the Teknaf area.”
He said: “The Myanmar government provides opportunities for Rohingyas to go to Malaysia by sea. Some Bangladeshis go with them. But now everybody is exaggerating about it.
“I had no idea that one could make such a huge amount of money from human trafficking. I just came to know about it from the media.”
Human Trafficking In Our Times-VII: A security crisis in the making?
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