Isolated in refugee camps, the Rohingya have little opportunity to tell their story.
For a country as densely populated as Bangladesh, there are a surprising number of places that give off a vibe of being in the middle of nowhere.
Shah Porir Dwip is one of these places.
There are no roads to the fishing village. To get there, you have to leave your car behind and get on a three-wheeler “auto-rickshaw” that will drive over a flood barrier. It is a bumpy ride.
At the southernmost tip of the Bangladeshi mainland, Shah Porir Dwip feels like a journey into alien territory: desolate landscape, no houses or residents to be seen, just border-guard checkpoints.
The island has been dragged into the spotlight after thousands of migrants were found on ships drifting off the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia.
There is a good chance that many of those on board set sail from Shah Porir Dwip.
A sliver of the Naf River separates the district of Teknaf from Myanmar.
Escaping racial violence
Rohingya migrants have been coming across here for decades, escaping racial violence in Rakhine state.
They have not been enthusiastically greeted in Bangladesh.
Locals here see them as trespassers; the government says it is struggling with overpopulation and does not need the extra headache of dealing with a mass influx of refugees.
This has led to a push among the Rohingya to try to move from Bangladesh to Malaysia.
Bangladeshis have joined in, many of them economically and environmentally displaced, or simply desperate to escape their country’s crushing lack of opportunities.
This is much to the disapproval of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister, who during a meeting with labour and employment officials said those on the boats are “mentally ill” and “tainting the image of the country”.
With Rohingya and Bangladeshis paying fees of up to $2,000 for a trip to Malaysia, the fishermen of Shah Porir Dwip have been happy to oblige the growing demand.
For years now, it has been an open secret that fishing boats full of Rohingya sail out from here into Myanmar waters, where larger ships await to take up to a thousand people per trip.
We visited the home of an alleged trafficking kingpin who was shot to death earlier this month, a man accused by police of smuggling thousands of people.
Dholu Hossain lived in a fenced complex surrounded by the compounds of his associates.
It is right next to a border guard camp.
Inside his home was a circus of associates, “well-wishers” and relatives swirling around, making bizarre, contradictory claims.
Dholu could not be a trafficking boss, they said.
He had no money, even though his house was one of the flashiest ones we saw in the village.
Dholu was such a nice guy and everyone in the area loved him because he used his money [which he did not have] to help his neighbours.
Dholu had three wives. No, he had four. The third wife has four children. No, she has six.
At one point, one of Dholu’s associates suddenly ran inside the house, then ran back out carrying an elderly woman and rather unceremoniously dumped her on a chair.
She sat there limply, fixing me with a vacant stare.
“That’s his first wife,” the man who brought her out said.
“She’s paralysed and Dholu still cared for her. Would a man like that be a trafficker?”
Their other claim I found odd was about Dholu’s assets. His associates kept pointing out that Dholu had no land, nothing. Not the house, not any of the land around, was in his name.
People just allowed him to stay there because “he was a great guy”. So clearly he could not be involved in anything shady, because criminals always leave a paper trail – that I presumed was the logic.
The one thing everyone was consistent about was that Dholu was not killed in a firefight, as has been officially claimed. They said officers came to the house, dragged Dholu out and shot him dead.
Bangladesh’s security forces have been accused by a number of human-rights groups of more than a thousand extrajudicial killings, masked as deaths caused by crossfire.
It once got to the point where some newspapers would print the word “crossfire” in quote marks in their articles. The same old crossfire story was perhaps getting a little tired. Maybe even the police felt that.
Twist in police tale
In any case, the official story the police told us had a little twist.
Dholu, and two other alleged traffickers who were killed with him, became aware that the police were coming to get them. The traffickers opened fire, a gunfight ensued.
Then – and here is the twist – as the traffickers tried to make their escape, they accidentally shot themselves – “friendly crossfire” perhaps.
Unofficially, the story is a little different.
“Death is a warning that everyone understands,” a member of the local border guard leadership told us.
It is a warning that has been heeded. Shah Porir Dwip now feels empty.
Before, locals say it was hard to find someone in the village who was not involved in trafficking.
After Dholu was killed, they all went into hiding.
The biggest loser in that regard might be Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants. The fact is that they have a strong, very real desire to improve their situation.
This is not a fanciful wish on their part, nor are they “mentally ill”. They have taken stock and decided they need to get out to survive, or at least to survive on terms they find acceptable.
The traffickers might be exploiting this desire, but they are also providing a service that these would-be migrants are being legally denied.