Cut-price fares on offer as refugees take to the water
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At least three boats carrying Rohingya refugees have set sail from Bangladesh in recent weeks, according to insiders in Cox's Bazar who said snakeheads were slashing journey prices by almost half and promising jobs in Malaysia.
'We know two boats left on December 18 and 19, carrying about 110 men. Another larger boat sailed off on January 5, carrying over 100 men. We don't know if there were more boats sailing for Thailand or Malaysia,' said a Rohingya man based in Teknaf.
'Last winter local agents took a few hundred men from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia in the same way and many of those men are working in Malaysia. This winter, too, there has been no exception.'
Hundreds of refugees have died during previous journeys and he said many agents were charging much less than before to encourage people to undertake the perilous voyage.
'Previously, they did not allow anyone to board a boat unless he paid at least 25,000 takas [HK$2,800],' he said.
'But as many now know of the risks involved in the voyage, to attract more men, this winter the agents slashed their rate of initial payment. The boats carried some men who paid as little as 15,000 takas this time.'
It is unclear if the 91 men detained in Thailand were among this batch. The 1,600-kilometre journey from Cox's Bazar usually takes about five weeks in the slow, rickety vessels.
Snakeheads are known to gather desperate men at points along the Bangladeshi coastline and in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
A Cox's Bazar-based Rohingya tourist guide said the Bangladeshi government had increased its vigilance around the coastline of Cox's Bazar, but boats were still setting off unhindered.
'Most of the men aiming to enter Malaysia know that many boatpeople died in the sea two years ago,' he said. 'Still they are ready to take the risk because the Rohingyas do not want to live in Myanmar and in Bangladesh where they are facing a tough crackdown on illegal refugees.'
That crackdown led to arrests of Rohingya men from Myanmar a month ago. 'On December 20 in Cox's Bazar district, we arrested 30 Rohingya men who were waiting to take a boat for Malaysia,' said Mohammed Shahjahan, a police officer in Cox's Bazar.
Another officer said many Rohingyas were being tricked into taking the journeys. 'One Burmese Rohingya man we arrested said to me that when he said to the agent the journey was fraught with risks, the agent said that they would pay enough bribes to Thai Navy and police and they would arrive in Malaysia without being harassed by the Thai authorities,' the officer said.
'The agents are using new ploys to extort more money from the Rohingyas in the process of arranging their journey to Malaysia.'