Many of the thousands of desperate Rohingya men, women and children, fleeing persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, have been victims of frequent boat capsizes in recent weeks.
Although most of these accidents were caused by rough weather and overcrowding, the survivors, coastguards and BGB officials said there was another reasons: some of the boats were sunk deliberately for money.
A group of brokers are taking away money, jewellery, other valuables from the Rohingya for ferrying them across the Naf River. They deliberately sink boats carrying those Rohingya who cannot pay.
Twenty-eight incidents of boat capsize have been recorded since August 24, killing 184 Rohingyas -- mainly women and children. So far, nearly 400 brokers and unscrupulous boatmen have been punished by mobile courts over these incidents.
Some of them are out on bail while some are still behind bars but the incidents of capsize on the Naf continues.
The latest incident was reported on October 10. Bodies of 10 Rohingya women and children were recovered, 21 others were rescued while at least 20 more are still unaccounted for.
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When asked about the frequent boat capsizes in the Naf River, Coastguard Station Commander Lt Zafar Imam Sajib told the Dhaka Tribune: “[The brokers] employ unskilled boatmen to earn more. The boats ply irrespective of high and low tides.
“Another reason is overcrowding. Most of these passengers are women and children, who are emaciated and do not have the strength to swing to shore when the boat sinks.
“Moreover, the boats being used are fishing boats, which are not meant for ferrying people.”
He continued: “The boatmen are intentionally sinking the boats because although they initially agree for a fare of Tk3,000, the boatmen try to extort more when the boat is in the middle of the river.
“They shake the boat to scare the helpless passengers. The women hand over gold, money and other valuable goods they have with them to brokers and boatmen. Some boatmen intentionally sink their boats if the Rohingya fail to give extra money.”
Lt Sajib said the administration was conducting regular drives against these boatmen and brokers. “Most of the residents of Shahporir Dwip are involved in this crime,” he added. “You can call it a criminal's heaven.”
Cox’s Bazar Additional Superintendent of Police Md Afruzul Haq Tutul said after the series of boat capsizes, they had taken measures to ensure that no boats from Bangladeshi side can travel to the Myanmar side to ferry passengers.
“But now, the boatmen are using sea routes to go to the other side. [In many cases] the boats sink on their way to Bangladesh in rough weather,” he said.
Boatmen charged as much as Tk10,000 per person for ferrying them across the river.
ASP Tutul said even after punishing about 400 brokers and boatmen, more people were getting involved in the business.
“The brokers can demand extra money [from the Rohingya] when the boat is in the middle of the river because they have no principle,” he said.
Tutul added that a group of greedy brokers was ferrying the Rohingya in overcrowded boats from Myanmar. “This is one of the causes of boat capsize. Police are continuing their drive against these people,” he added.
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So far, 230 brokers have been punished by the mobile court for cheating in the pretext of helping the Rohingya, the police officer said.
Teknaf BGB 2 Commander Lt Col SM Ariful Islam identified three reasons for the capsize of Rohingya-laden boats in the Naf River -- overcrowding, rickety boats and using perilous water routes.
Referring to the October 10 incident, he said: “That boat had a capacity to carry maximum 15 to 20 people. But we have recovered 12 bodies and rescued 21 others while many more are missing. So, we can guess how many passengers were on this boat.”
More than half a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August 25 after Myanmar army’s latest crackdown targeting the Rohingya. So far, at least 28 incidents of sinking of boats in the Naf River and Bay of Bengal have been reported.
Of the 184 bodies recovered, 97 were children, 58 women and 29 were men.