It's an elusive dreamland named Bidesh (foreign land) that lures them into leaving their near and dear ones. It's a quicksand of treacherous promises of a better life that makes them put their lives at stake.
Nurul Islam Nuru of Kolatoli Barochhara village in Cox's Bazar Sadar set out on a fishing trawler with many others into the Bay of Bengal last year. With dreams of going to Malaysia, the youth gave Tk 10,000 to a trafficker, who put him on the boat.
However, his boat was caught by Thai police en route. After spending five months in a Thai prison, he returned home around three months ago, broken-hearted and diminished in health.
Twenty-four-year-old Mohammad Alamgir of Cox's Bazar town used to lead a happy life through running a small business. But he too got lured into the aforementioned quicksand.
Alamgir paid Tk 2.06 lakh to a human trafficking gang at Teknaf and set sail for Malaysia in March in the hope for a better income. But fate held something else for him. He is now languishing in a Thai prison, waiting for the government of Bangladesh to arrange his return home.
Many people have gone missing in the last few months after setting out for Malaysia illegally through the sea route. Scores have been killed in trawler capsizes and at the hands of human traffickers. A number of others remain incarcerated in foreign lands, while many more have returned empty handed and are now gasping for life, their homes and hearths having been lost in their bid to pursue a better life abroad.
However, nothing could stop or even slow down this evil business of human trafficking through the sea, thanks to the sweet-tongued gangs of traffickers and the gullibility of a section of youths, who think the grass is always greener on the other shore of the choppy sea.
A JOURNEY PERILOUS
According to the Coast Guard, police and local sources, the godfathers involved in trafficking people illegally through the sea route are mainly based in Teknaf of Cox's Bazar district. They have appointed middlemen across the country. These middlemen lure people from all over the country with pledges of sending young people to Malaysia at a low cost and hand them over to the Teknaf-based trafficking gangs. They get "commission" in return.
The traffickers keep the people in their various safe houses in Teknaf and at opportune moments board them on mini-steamers and trawlers at seven to eight points along the Teknaf coast. Only dry food like puffed rice and molasses and a few containers of water are given to passengers on a journey that may last two weeks or more. The boats then sail to Thailand first, where members of the trafficking gang hold the passengers hostage.
The families of the hostages then are contacted for more money, apart from what they have already paid. Once the money is paid through the middlemen, the passengers are made to board another boat for Malaysia. In many cases, the Bangladeshis get caught either by the Thai or the Malaysia authorities.
The traffickers take Tk 10,000 to Tk 20,000 for sending a person to Malaysia. Sometimes they even take nothing until the aspiring people are taken to Thailand.
PICK-UP AND TRANSIT POINTS
Until a few years back, the traffickers would use Shah Parir Dwip and Teknaf Sadar union under Teknaf upazila for gathering and sending people out to the sea. But following the deaths of many aspiring Malaysia-bound people in trawler capsizes at these points, the Coast Guard, Border Guard and police have intensified their presence there.
Now the traffickers use about 40 places and pick-up points for trafficking. These places include Katabonia, Kachubonia, Paschim Para, Dakkhin Para, Bazar Para, Noakhali Para and some remote corners of Shah Parir Dwip in Teknaf upazila; Inani, Reju Mohona, and Madarbonia in Ukhia upazila; Himchhari in Ramu upazila; Kolatoli Borochhara, Khuruskhul and Choufaldandi in Cox's Bazar Sadar upazila; Hoanok and Sonadia in Moheshkhali upazila; Moghnama and Ujanthia in Pekua upazila; and Tabaler Char and Ali Akbar Dail in Kutubdia upazila.
More than 50 people were killed when a trawler carrying Malaysia-bound people sank in the sea adjacent to Dargahbil and Habirchar under Teknaf on May 16 last year. In the same year, around 200 people died when two trawlers capsized in the Bay. The bodies of only 80 persons could be recovered.
Not just the accidents, there are even worse demons that take the lives of these ill-fated people. The captors in Thailand, locals allege, have killed many people for not paying the money or disobeying them.
In December last year, 23-year-old Putia, son of Sukkur Ahmed of Dakkhin Para of Chakoria upazila, died in captivity at the hands of the traffickers in Thailand. Many others, including Abul Hashem of Segun Bagicha of the same area, Nurul Kabir of Chhoangkhali under Ukhia upazila, Mohammad Kamal of Kutupalong, Noor Mohammad of Maricha Paling, Mohammad Ismail of Lombaghona remain missing. All of them boarded the boats between January and April this year.
Many of the aspirants get caught en route as well. In the biggest incident of detention of illegal migrants, the Coast Guards held 220 people in a Malaysia-bound trawler from Dakhhin Paschimer Baroshil area near St Martin's Islam on February 11.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
The Human Trafficking Deterrence and Suppression Act was passed in parliament in February 2012, with the provision life imprisonment as the maximum punishment for human trafficking. After the law was enacted, 124 cases were filed in Cox's Bazar district, accusing 705 people, 238 of whom have been arrested while the rest are on the run. All the cases are pending at court.
Abu Taher, a community leader of Sabrang union of Teknaf, told this correspondent that Noapara and Puran Para under the union are two main points used for human trafficking.
"There are hardly any males in these two villages as most of the male residents have left for Malaysia," he said, adding that some of them succeeded in reaching Malaysia, some remain missing and some others have been detained by Thai police.
LAW ENFORCERS IN COLLUSION?
Locals of different coastal areas of Cox's Bazar district have blamed the inaction of the law enforcement agencies for the rise in human trafficking.
Anwar Hossain, chairman of Jalia Palong union in Ukhia upazila, said a list of human traffickers of his area had been given to the police but they were not taking any action against arrest the culprits.
Habibur Rahman, chairman of Sabrang union in Teknaf upazila, admitted that the union was being used as the main point of human trafficking.
"It is difficult to check this problem because the traffickers are very influential and they are helped by law enforcers in most cases," he told The Daily Star.
Md. Ruhul Amin, Deputy Commissioner of Cox's Bazar and district president of the Anti-human Trafficking Task Force, said the law enforcing agencies had been directed to remain alert round the clock to prevent human trafficking. The upazila administration has been conducting awareness campaigns against trafficking as well, he added.