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World Crossings: False hope, no mercy for fleeing migrants

Muhammad Selim was loaded into a sampan with other migrants

Muhammad Selim was loaded into a sampan with other migrants “like chickens” as he sought better employment in Malaysia. Instead, he worked for six months at a Malaysian construction site before being rounded up by police, abused in prison and sent back home.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

False hope, no mercy for fleeing migrants

Options for Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladeshi on the coast of the Bay of Bengal are bleak. They flee poverty and persecution in their homelands, often costing them everything they possess, into the clutches of human traffickers, writes Nathan VanderKlippe

For more than two months this spring, Abul Taher did not know where his son had gone.

Then his phone rang. "Your son is in the middle of the sea. Give us money," the voice on the other side said. "If you don't give the money, we will kill your son and throw him into the sea." In the background, he could hear screams from his son as captors beat him. Then his son, Muhammad Selim, was given a moment to speak. "Please, give them money. Please, save my life," he said.

The 22-year-old was somewhere on the sun-scorched waters of the Bay of Bengal, one of roughly 8,000 people stranded afloat. They included poor young men like Mr. Selim, convinced he had found a path to sudden new wealth. Dozens left from his small village alone in south-eastern Bangladesh of roughly 800.

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They crammed into boats alongside fleeing Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar that has faced decades of persecution at home.

Abul Taher sits with his son Muhammad Selim, who left Bangladesh earlier this year as part of a tide of people seeking better prospects in Malaysia. When Mr. Selim was at sea, traffickers extorted money from his family and killed other passengers on his boat. He eventually landed in Indonesia but was returned to Bangladesh.

Abul Taher sits with his son Muhammad Selim, who left Bangladesh earlier this year as part of a tide of people seeking better prospects in Malaysia. When Mr. Selim was at sea, traffickers extorted money from his family and killed other passengers on his boat. He eventually landed in Indonesia but was returned to Bangladesh.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

The unfolding of what Amnesty International called a "humanitarian crisis at sea" started long before Syrian refugees began leaving for Europe, and threatens to continue for years to come. A regional crackdown has won a pause in the number taking to the water this fall. But the grinding poverty and persecution that have driven the trade remain unchanged.

"I fully expect that the trafficking will resume. I was in the camps a month ago and lots of people said, 'We don't care about the risk, we're just going to go," said David Scott Mathieson, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch

The long south-eastern peninsula of Bangladesh slices alongside Myanmar, its 125 kilometres of sand forming one of earth's longest beaches. It's one of the few places in Bangladesh that attract tourists. It's also home to one of Asia's most vulnerable populations, where poor farmers live alongside drug traffickers, corrupt police and a persistent dream that somewhere across the water, there is something better.

Trouble here dates back centuries. The regional centre of Cox's Bazar is named after British diplomat Henry Cox, who was dispatched to the area in the late 1700s after it was inundated by Arakanese refugees from what is now Rakhine State in Myanmar. Today, the refugees are Rohingya, also from Rakhine, who now number in the hundreds of thousands.

Their efforts to leave the area have stoked a crisis that has confounded regional neighbours and Western nations alike, Canada included. Many Bangladeshis and Rohingya are uneducated and illiterate, with few of the skills wealthier countries seek in refugees or immigrants.

Canada was the first country to accept Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in 2006, but the first 23 people have been joined by fewer than 300 others, in stark contrast to plans by the Justin Trudeau government to resettle 25,000 Syrians by the end of the year.

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Such a number would make a profound difference in south-east Asia, where Amnesty International has estimated 63,000 people left Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2014 and another 31,000 in the first half of 2015. They embarked on a perilous route that left 1,110 dead and another 1,000 missing, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Trish McAlaster/The Globe and Mail

On Mr. Selim's boat, some men who drank salty water got diarrhea and died; others were tossed into the sea when they became ill. One man fell into the sea while going to the bathroom and was left to drown. Another man was shot for making trouble.

Those who made it to dry land did not always fare much better.

Mr. Selim's boat became infamous for a bloody fight that broke out between Bangladeshis and Rohingya as it neared Indonesian waters in mid-May. When Indonesian fishing boats arrived, they saw hundreds of people bobbing in the water and many more dead, in what one captain called a "killing field in the sea."

Mr. Selim was rescued and returned to Bangladesh in late July under a repatriation program that has brought back 2,339 people between May 12 and Nov. 1. But he is a young man diminished. Images of the fighting at sea haunt him. "I can't sleep at night," he says. He has been weakened and cannot work. To pay the traffickers, his father auctioned six months of his labour to a rice farmer, sold his cows and mortgaged their tattered home. The debt is worse than the regret.

Mr. Taher is haunted by a conversation he had before his son disappeared, when he told his son to find a job. When Mr. Selim said maybe he should just leave, Mr. Taher shot back in anger: "'Go! Go wherever you want!'" The memory brings tears to his leathered face. "I did not understand what the consequences would be."

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Muhammad Selim tells The Globe and Mail he and his fellow passengers were given just two bowls of rice a day, forced to sit in such tight quarters they could only fit by interlocking legs and regularly beaten with pipes and strips from rubber tires.

Muhammad Selim tells The Globe and Mail he and his fellow passengers were given just two bowls of rice a day, forced to sit in such tight quarters they could only fit by interlocking legs and regularly beaten with pipes and strips from rubber tires.

False pretenses and no mercy

The beach where Muhammad Selim – another man, though they share the same name – left Bangladesh is peaceful in the daylight. Fishermen mill around crescent-shaped sampans waiting on dry sand for the tide to come in. The same boats were here on the summer night in 2013 when Mr. Selim came here, but the atmosphere was far different. In the dark, traffickers loaded Mr. Selim and 27 others into the bottom of a hull before covering them with mats and small bamboo sticks.

"They put us in like chickens," he said.

Soon, they set off for the Bay of Bengal.

If the experience of refugees and migrants holds some common elements around the world – a flight from persecution, violence or poverty – those leaving Bangladesh and Myanmar faced unique ugliness in their illicit transit, all of it under the control of smugglers and traffickers for whom profit and humane treatment were often at odds.

On the boats, many passengers were given just two bowls of rice a day, forced to sit in such tight quarters they could only fit by interlocking legs and regularly beaten with pipes and strips from rubber tires.

With fees that reached the equivalent of three years' labour, those who came by choice paid for passage by stealing gold jewellery from mothers, mortgaging houses and selling land to pay for passage. Others were drugged and stolen away, their families later told to pay money or risk losing loved ones.

Many were lured by false pretenses. "There were children who bought toys in Cox's Bazar – footballs. They were led to believe they would be playing football on boats like cruise ships," said Meghna Guhathakurta, the executive director of Research Initiatives Bangladesh, a Dhaka-based organization that studies marginalized communities.

Only when they left shore did they discover how harsh conditions would be, with smugglers leaving some stranded afloat as long as eight months and holding others in jungle camps. Their plight was exposed in grisly fashion this May when authorities in Malaysia found 139 graves and Thai authorities found more than two dozen corpses and skeletons near some of those camps – discoveries that sparked a massive international response.

"It became a ferocious trade. They had no mercy on people," said Abul Kashem, an NGO worker and president of a local human trafficking resistance committee.

"There were so many people – it was like a herd of animals was being transported from here to the sea."

Abul Kashem became president of an anti-trafficking resistance committee in Bangladesh after seeing the mistreatment of people leaving illegally for Malaysia.

Abul Kashem became president of an anti-trafficking resistance committee in Bangladesh after seeing the mistreatment of people leaving illegally for Malaysia.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

After the traffickers extorted money from Mr. Selim's family, he was delivered to Thailand.

Surrounded by Bangladeshis and Rohingya, he had arrived at the mid-way point of the secretive smugglers pathway. From here, some people were sold into slavery on fishing boats and vegetable farms in Thailand.

Traffickers took Mr. Selim to Malaysia, where he worked without pay for six months at a construction site before being picked up in a police raid.

A court sentenced him to two months in jail, where guards sometimes hung him naked with his limbs spread, as if on a cross.

Finally, he was let go and allowed to return home, where he found others, like Suman Dar Baru, who had endured the same. "After coming back, we told so many people about our miserable life and said, 'Don't go to Malaysia or Thailand. Don't listen to the brokers. Life will be hell if you go,'" Mr. Dar Baru said.

Pharmacist Abul Hamid discovered the human trafficking around his small shop when a young man raced in, bleeding from wounds and begged for help.

Pharmacist Abul Hamid discovered the human trafficking around his small shop when a young man raced in, bleeding from wounds and begged for help.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

The economics of trafficking

The young man who ran into Abul Hamid's pharmacy was terrified. He was wearing only shorts and bleeding from his forehead, arms and legs.

"They are taking me to the boat," he told Mr. Hamid, who offered him shelter from his captors.

An hour later, Mr. Hamid's phone rang. "We'll give you 20,000 taka" – $340 – "to give him back," the unfamiliar voice said.

It was an introduction to the unclear lines between voluntary smuggling and involuntary trafficking, in a part of Bangladesh where human cargo grew into big business, its flood of money drawing in villagers, fishermen and authorities.

Incensed, Mr. Hamid started to organize neighbours against the traffickers and sought to find out who they were. One name came up again and again: Rezia Begum Raby.

Senior police officials accuse Ms. Raby of being an accountant to local smugglers. She was detained for more than a month after investigators say they found her with cheques totalling the equivalent of $255,000.

Police have opened a total of 11 cases against Ms. Raby and her husband, and police documents obtained by The Globe and Mail describe her as a "professional human trafficker." It's a charge Ms. Raby denies, saying the allegations against her "are fabricated. It's all lies."

She declined to meet in person.

But she did offer to describe the economics of trafficking, starting with fees of $3,400 to $5,100 a person in a country where a man working a rice field can earn as little as $5 a day.

From that total, the broker who brought a passenger to a boat might be paid $170 per head. A fishing boat captain might get $85 per person, with another $340 going to the captain of the larger vessel that would travel to Thailand. Traffickers in Thailand, Bangladesh and Malaysia would all have to be paid and, in turn, cover the cost of drivers and basic food supplies.

More money went to pay police and border guards monthly payments of $850 to $1,700 plus donations of feasts to politicians.

The easy money from trafficking was hard to resist, Ms. Raby said.

"Think about it: Some of these brokers were daily labourers in the vegetable markets, only unloading sacks every day. Now they have a five-storey building," she said.

Abul Taher sits with his son Muhammad Selim, who left Bangladesh earlier this year as part of a tide of people seeking better prospects in Malaysia.

Abul Taher sits with his son Muhammad Selim, who left Bangladesh earlier this year as part of a tide of people seeking better prospects in Malaysia.

Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Clamping down

The fifth floor of a squat tower in downtown Dhaka lies far from the open stretches of the Bay of Bengal. But it is from this spot that special superintendent Mirza Abdullah leads the anti-trafficking efforts at the Criminal Investigation Department of the Bangladeshi police.

In 2012, Bangladesh issued a human trafficking rule that sets a minimum punishment of five years of "rigorous imprisonment" for those guilty of the offence, and allows for execution of those organizing the trade.

Mr. Abdullah, a soft-spoken man with a Master's in physics and precise spoken English, acknowledges enforcement has been a struggle. Bangladesh ranks among the world's 30 most corrupt nations and its courts are grid-locked.

"In our criminal justice system, to dispose finally of a case takes six, seven, eight maybe 10 years," Mr. Abdullah said. And "it is not impossible," he said that authorities themselves, including police, "are engaged in these illegal activities."

Yet Bangladesh and its neighbours have shown remarkable success in clamping down on trafficking this year. Out of 14,000 police officers in south-eastern Bangladesh, several thousand have been transferred away in the past year for what Mr. Abdullah called "participation in illegal activities" – an unusually high tally. Several hundred have been fired, he said. Some bank accounts belonging to traffickers have also been frozen.

Between 2014 and the beginning of 2015, Bangladesh police investigated 373 human trafficking cases, according to statistics he maintains; they have filed charges in 122. "And you have to take note that in one case, there might be 10 or 15 accused," he says.

Elsewhere, navies and coast guards in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have pledged to repel boats, while authorities arrested at least one suspected smuggling kingpin, issued warrants for hundreds of others and suspended dozens of police.

The concerted effort has had a dramatic effect. Last October, more than 13,000 people illegally left the shores of Bangladesh and Myanmar, the most in any month of the sailing season. This October, "we had something like 500 altogether in four boats," said Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project, which has for years documented the smuggling issue.

"What is very clear is that the smuggling network has been disrupted," she said. "There aren't going to be many people leaving by boat this year."

Yet Ms. Lewa struggles to call that an unvarnished positive. For all the abuses, the boats provided an escape from miserable circumstances.

"For me, I've never tried to stop people going on boats," she said. "Because I think if I was one of them, I would probably be on a boat myself."

'I have nothing left but pain'

In the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp, human waste accumulates in pools behind rudimentary bathrooms. Children run naked through muddy lanes built on trash and barely wide enough to walk through. Mud-walled huts are patched with empty World Food Programme rice bags.

This is one of the places where Bangladesh puts Rohingya who have come here illegally, and 70,000 live in this camp alone, estimates Hafes Ullah, the secretary of the camp's youth committee.

Rashida Begum’s husband left three years ago, joining the tide of Rohingya leaving Bangladesh for better opportunities elsewhere. He has not returned, leaving Ms. Begum to feed her three children by harvesting wood. Sometimes, the family only has money to eat every other day.

Rashida Begum’s husband left three years ago, joining the tide of Rohingya leaving Bangladesh for better opportunities elsewhere. He has not returned, leaving Ms. Begum to feed her three children by harvesting wood. Sometimes, the family only has money to eat every other day.

Amirul Rajiv and Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

But today many of its huts contain empty spaces, left behind by those who have fled on boats. In each of the last few years, around 5,000 people fled, Mr. Ullah says. "And the families who have no money or lost people – their situation is horrible."

Far from the boats and the drama of high-seas migrants, Kutupalong camp is both a source of the refugee crisis and home to its ugly remnants.

Two years ago, Rashida Begum's husband left, saying only, "I'm going for a long walk, and will come back with a lot of money. Don't worry about me," she recalls. She was pregnant at the time and had reason to hope. Other men had left and sent back money.

Her husband was not one of them.

"He disappeared," she says. "I thought he was dead."

With only a Grade 3 education, she had few options. Some women in the camp turned to prostitution.

Ms. Begum cut wood from nearby hills to sell at a local bazaar. Sometimes she made enough money to eat lunch but not dinner. Sometimes her three children ate every second day.

This spring, she received a letter with news that her husband is still alive in a prison in Myanmar. But she has no idea whether he might ever return.

"Allah has kept us alive," she says. But when her husband left, "my life just ended. I have nothing left but pain."

Also from the series

Crossings: In the midst of Germany’s refugee crisis, two lives intersect At a glance, German Max Saschowa, 75, and Syrian Khaled Allak, 22 are an odd pair, but they have more in common than first appears
Crossings: How Syrians in Lebanon are living in limbo Life for Syrian refugees in Lebanon is becoming more and more desperate. Families intent on migrating to the West legally rather than try their luck trekking to Europe face dwindling humanitarian aid, an increasingly reluctant host country and growing Islamophobia in the very places they one day hope to live
A nine-country scramble to freedom, through the eyes of a refugee We asked a young Afghan seeking a new life in Europe to take pictures of his family’s journey from Turkey to Switzerland. The photos tell his story
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