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Dhaka Tribune

How Arsa and the Arakan Army make money from trafficking Rohingyas

  •  In the past six months, a number of boats carrying Rohingyas stopped
  • Some brokers arrested 
  • At least 2,000 persons involved
Update : 13 Mar 2024, 09:00 AM

While many Rohingya refugees tend to send their relatives, mainly women and girls, outside the camps to Malaysia and Thailand, human traffickers from the community take this opportunity to make money quickly.

The trend has increased since a million Rohingyas took refuge in Cox’s Bazar after being forced to leave Rakhine State during a military crackdown in 2017. The delay in their safe repatriation to Myanmar is another factor behind the unabated trafficking of Rohingyas.

The number of unmarried women in the Rohingya camps is significant. Many Rohingya families want their daughters to get married to the Rohingya men settled in Malaysia.

Abdul Hamid, general secretary of the Ukhiya Human Trafficking Prevention Committee, said many Rohingyas have crossed the sea to reach Malaysia. Earlier, a powerful gang used the same route for human trafficking.

“It will be very worrying if trafficking resumes,” he told Dhaka Tribune.

Muhib Ullah, the majhi at a camp in Kutupalong, said: "The brokers are trying to send the Rohingyas to Malaysia by sea. Already, more than 300 Rohingya have crossed to Malaysia recently. I have heard that about 700 more Rohingyas may leave the camps this season.

“To go to Malaysia, it costs a person about Tk3 lakh. Armed groups Arsa (Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army) and Arakan Army on both sides of the border take a big part of this money to facilitate the illegal journey.”

Bangladesh and Myanmar share a 271-km border, almost half of which falls in dense forest areas and the Naf River. Criminals use this porous border for criminal activities, including smuggling arms and dangerous drugs like yaba and ICE.

Sources say the Rohingya criminal gangs use SIMs from both Bangladesh and Myanmar and mobile banking services from Bangladesh for the transaction of illegal money. The smuggling has increased since the civil war broke out in Myanmar in October last year.

Who are the targets?

Illegal human trafficking to Malaysia by sea is nothing new. The main targets of the gangs are the Rohingya women and children, many of whom are uneducated. It is an open secret in the camps that some criminal gangs of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas are working behind the scenes of human trafficking.

This reporter has found that traffickers are conducting their mission by targeting women and children. They are tricking the Rohingyas to death since the journey through the sea on small boats is often fatal.

 In the past six months, Bangladeshi law enforcement officers have stopped a number of boats carrying Rohingyas. They arrested some brokers.

On December 13, the police rescued 24 Rohingyas, including women and children, from the coastal area of Teknaf in Cox's Bazar district while they were being smuggled to Malaysia by sea. Earlier, a gang of cross-border criminals was trying to smuggle 57 Rohingyas into Chamila village in Myanmar and collect ransom. Police rescued them from the beach next to Marine Drive in Teknaf on November 25, while preparing to start the journey on a fishing boat.

The rescued Rohingyas said the traffickers took Tk20,000 from each of them. They were supposed to pay another Tk2,90,000 after reaching the destination.

Around 9,000 Rohingya refugees tried to reach Malaysia by sea in 2018-23, but 589 of them died and many others disappeared, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

Why Malaysia?

Most of the people who were rescued while crossing the sea at different times say that they have regular contact with their relatives living in Malaysia. They leave the camps and want to go to Malaysia, hoping for a good living.

But the situation is not favourable in Malaysia either. Once there, many Rohingyas are either detained by law enforcement or subjected to various forms of torture at the hands of the traffickers.

Talking to Dhaka Tribune, many Rohingya refugees said they risk their lives to go to Malaysia to marry off their daughters and live better than the camps in Bangladesh.

Using this opportunity, the human trafficking gangs target the Rohingya families, especially the women.

The head of a camp in Ukhiya camp said on condition of anonymity that while some Rohingya women get married in Malaysia, a large part of them go to Malaysia en route to other countries, like Australia and Germany.

A woman named Sahida Begum from the Kutupalong camp said: “I am in great pain with my four daughters. My shelter is made of bamboo, and there are holes and voids. Some youths harass my daughters from time to time. Keeping them at home is very difficult.”

Teknaf Upazila Chairman Nurul Alam said that local Bengali and Rohingya gangs are involved in human trafficking. “We are also concerned about this. Moreover, there are regular discussions about it in meetings of the police station law and order committee.”

Rashed Mahmud Ali, chairman of Hnila Union Parishad of Teknaf, said: "It is true that many relatives of the Rohingya refugees live in Malaysia, who inspire them to come out of the camps.

“We cannot always be on guard since such incidents happen all the time. These people go abroad and show Bangladeshi identity. It is very unfortunate.”

In response to another question, he said Arsa is not the only one who takes a share of the money from human trafficking. “The Arakan Army members who are on the other side of the border also take money. If you do not pay, they will shoot you. That is why the human traffickers give them money.”

According to the Rohingya people and law enforcement agencies, several points in Teknaf are used to smuggle Rohingyas abroad. Even though these points are not new, the gangs use different tactics.

The frequently used points in Teknaf are Shamlapur, Sheelkhali, Rajarchhara, Jahazpura, Sbarang, Shah Porir Dwip, Katabonia, Mithapanirchhara, Jaliapalong, Inani, Himchhari, Rejukhal, Qutubdiara, Khurushkul, Chauphaldandi, Maheshkhali, and Sitakunda and Mazhirghat areas.

Several Rohingya leaders are involved in this trafficking. All of them are residents of different refugee camps in Teknaf.

At least 2,000 persons involved

Local authorities in Cox’s Bazar prepared a list of human traffickers and sent it to the Special Crime and Prosecution Division of the Police Headquarters on December 17, 2014. The list contained the names of 11 international human traffickers, 26 Hundi traders, and 230 people from all over the country, including Cox's Bazar. But the names of about 500 top criminals in Cox's Bazar involved in human trafficking were not mentioned.

The campaign to suppress human traffickers started with the list. In the first phase, six human traffickers were killed in a shootout with the police, including the top human trafficker in Cox's Bazar, Dhulu Hossain, and more than 150 human traffickers were arrested. Due to the crackdown, about 2,000 human traffickers—both listed and unlisted—from Cox's Bazar district have gone into hiding, and trafficking by sea has come down significantly.

But after the fresh exodus since August 25, 2017, the number of people involved in human trafficking doubled.

What the officials say

Asked why human trafficking could not be stopped, Additional Superintendent of Police (Administration) of Cox's Bazar Mohammad Rafiqul Islam said: "We are continuing our drives to catch the human traffickers active now. But the victims of trafficking willingly pay money to brokers to go to Malaysia by sea. In this case, we have to face a lot of challenges rescuing them.”

Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Mizanur Rahman says they are holding meetings with law enforcement agencies and carrying out public awareness programs.

The official added that he had no idea about armed groups like Arsa and the Arakan Army taking share of the human trafficking money.

Dr Mohammad Tanzim Uddin Khan, a teacher at Dhaka University's International Relations Department, said only legal frameworks cannot stop the Rohingya migration.

“Influential and conscientious countries must put pressure on the Myanmar government to repatriate the Rohingyas with due dignity. They should be guaranteed safe residence in that country. The solution to all problems lies here.

“Until then, the Rohingyas who want to cross the stormy waves of the sea will have to wait…like in the lyrics of English musician Sting's song ‘The Last Ship.’”

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