Rohingyas living both in Rakhine and Cox's Bazar are in great risk of trafficking and exploitation as they seek a safe and better life after the brutal military crackdown last year, say law enforcers and aid agencies.
The danger has heightened because the calm sea in winter is perfect for the rickety boats to sail for Southeast Asia, while Rohingyas see little hope of going back anytime soon with Myanmar making no real progress in creating conducive conditions in Rakhine for their return.
Recent months have been marked by frequent discoveries of boats with Rohingyas in the coasts of Cox's Bazar, Myanmar, Malaysia or Indonesia, raising fresh fears of a migrant crisis.
Bangladeshi law enforcers rescued around 80 Rohingyas in the last two months, with the latest being on November 30, when they were trying to cross the Bay of Bengal to reach Malaysia, said police officials in Cox's Bazar.
On December 4, a boat carrying 20 Rohingyas landed on the Northeastern shore of Indonesia's Sumatra Island from Myanmar.
In early April, two Rohingya men died in a boat that arrived in the Aceh province of Indonesia with 17 passengers from Myanmar.
In the same month, another vessel carrying 79 Rohingya arrived there, while Malaysia intercepted a boat carrying 56 Rohingyas on its coast and are sheltering them.
Myanmar's naval authorities intercepted two boats -- one on November 16 and the other on November 29 -- with some 200 Rohingyas on board while being trafficked to Malaysia through sea.
“Rohingya youths -- both men and women -- in the camps in Cox's Bazar can't move beyond these camps. They don't see a tangible future. Under such conditions, many Rohingyas are susceptible to trafficking,” said Major Mehedi Hasan, company commander of Rab's Cox's Bazar camp.
Their desperation to go to Malaysia is more than those of the traffickers, he told The Daily Star on December 3. “They think they can have a better economic future in Malaysia; they can move freely.”
A police official in Cox's Bazar said their inquiry found that traffickers help build relationships between the Rohingya girls in the camps and the Rohingya men who are already in Malaysia.
“Eventually, the girl marries the man in Malaysia over phone. This way, the traffickers make the girls believe in the marriage and get them out of the camps for trafficking to Malaysia,” he said.
Anti-trafficking campaigners say Rohingyas tend to take on the risky voyages mostly following violence. It was evident following communal violence in Rakhine in 2012 when some 200 Rohingyas were killed and 124,000 displaced.
Trafficking through the seas reached its peak in May 2015 when Malaysian authorities discovered 139 graves believed to contain the bodies of Rohingyas. Numerous similar graves were also found along the Thai-Malaysia borders.
Traffickers used to hold the victims hostage in the Thai jungles for ransom and moved overland to Malaysia. Those who failed to pay ransom were tortured. With the discovery of mass graves, law enforcers began an anti-trafficking crackdown, which eventually had collapsed the regional trafficking networks then.
Now, after the military crackdown last year that forced some 750,000 Rohingyas to enter Bangladesh, a fresh wave of human trafficking through the seas seems to be rising.
Regional rights body Fortify Rights said trafficking of Rohingyas from Myanmar is also happening overland. Its research from February to May based on 16 interviews of Rohingyas who fled Myanmar to reach Thailand, found that the human traffickers caged and withheld food and water from the Rohingya men, women, and children.
Rohingyas are also being trafficked to Dhaka, Chittagong and elsewhere in Bangladesh from the refugee camps.
In a report in October this year, UN Migration Agency IOM said young girls sold into forced labour are the largest group of trafficking victims in Bangladesh's Rohingya refugee camps.
“There are limited jobs in the camp and for women there is almost nothing. That's why I went outside of the camp,” one young Rohingya woman, who ended up being forced to work long hours for very little pay in the fish processing industry, told the IOM.
Dina Parmer, IOM's head of protection services in Cox's Bazar, said men, women and children were all at risk of exploitation by traffickers. But the demand for girls and young women to work as domestic maids means they are often targets.
“Once trafficked, their youth, inexperience and isolation leave them particularly vulnerable to abuse,” she added.
Out of the 99 cases of trafficked persons identified last year, 35 were girls, 31 women, 25 men and eight boys. Most of them were found in exploitative labour situations and five women and four girls ended up being in the exploitative sex trade, the IOM said.
Bangladeshi security agencies have reported stopping up to 60 women and girls a day from attempting to leave the camps in small groups, it added.
Omar Sadek, outreach coordinator of Young Power in Social Action, which is creating awareness in the refugee camps, said the Rohingyas, who have been living in Cox's Bazar camps for many years, have links to the Bangladeshi community and work as one of the trafficking networks.
They allure the young Rohingya girls with marriage proposals from Bangladeshi men but sell them as maids. Many of them also end up in prostitution.
“We suspect that Rohingyas are spread out over various parts of Bangladesh,” he said.
John Quinley, human rights specialist with Fortify Rights, recommended that Bangladesh provide the Rohingya full protection and access to education, healthcare and freedom of movement to prevent trafficking.
"Members of ASEAN as well as Bangladesh should take coordinated action to address root causes in Myanmar and provide support to refugees seeking safety," he added.
Nahid Adnan Tainan, additional police superintendent in Cox's Bazar, said though the 32 camps in Ukhia and Teknaf were without any fence, they had a strong police presence in each camp.
“Yet, some Rohingya may dodge police checks and escape the camps,” he told The Daily Star on December 3.