Boatload of Rohingya refugees plucked from sea by Bangladeshi coastguard, mere kilometres from border with Malaysia
- Authorities are concerned about increased activity on the dangerous sea route to Southeast Asia with the coming onset of winter
Bangladesh’s coastguard rescued 33 Rohingya and detained six alleged human traffickers from a fishing trawler headed for Malaysia in the Bay of Bengal on Wednesday.
The rescued included 14 men, 10 women and nine children who had been living in refugee camps in the southeastern Bangladesh district of Cox’s Bazar, according to Fayezul Islam Mondol, coastguard commander in the coastal town of Teknaf.
“We have captured six traffickers as well. All of them are Bangladeshis,” he said.
Some 720,000 refugees of the persecuted Myanmar minority have taken shelter in Bangladesh since August last year.
They fled what the UN has described as ethnic cleansing in Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, and have joined some 300,000 refugees already living in camps in Cox’s Bazar.
For years, Rohingya on both sides of the border have boarded boats organised by smugglers in the dry months between November and March, when the sea is calm. The perilous journey to Thailand and Malaysia, often undertaken in overcrowded, rickety vessels, has cost many lives.
Thailand cracked down on the trade after discovering a series of mass graves in 2015, leading to a crisis when smugglers abandoned their human cargo and left boats adrift in the Andaman Sea.
Mondol said the Rohingya rescued on Wednesday had boarded a dilapidated fishing trawler on an uncertain “sea voyage to Malaysia”.
The boat was intercepted on Wednesday evening by a coastguard boat near Bangladesh’s Saint Martin’s Island, only a few kilometres away from Myanmar’s Anauk Myinhlut coastline.
One of the arrested traffickers, Abdus Shukur, 55, said that the fishing trawler had been due to transfer the Rohingya to a bigger Malaysia-bound ship moored near the island in the Bay of Bengal.
“We were forced by an influential local to take these (Rohingya) people on the fishing boat. We were instructed to board them on an awaiting ship near Saint Martin’s,” Shukur said.
Authorities in Bangladesh worry many refugees may once again risk travelling to Southeast Asia by boat, a route previously popular among Rohingya seeking economic opportunities outside the grim and crowded camps.
Most voyages take place between November and March when the seas are most calm.
A local government official said with the approach of winter, traffickers were now trying to lure Rohingya to the dangerous boat journeys again.
“The sea is getting calm and there is high demand among the refugees to travel to Malaysia,” said Abdullah Monir, mayor of Teknaf. “The traffickers are therefore taking the opportunity to float their boats again.”
On Tuesday, Border Guard Bangladesh detained 14 Rohingya off the coast of Teknaf who had allegedly been cheated by human traffickers.
Major Shariful Islam, a spokesman for border guard, said they paid nearly US$120 each to a fellow refugee in Kutupalong, the largest Rohingya refugee settlement, to be sent to Malaysia.
“But the man sent them on a brief boat journey and later dropped them off Teknaf coast after three days,” Islam said.