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Dhaka, Bangladesh – Torture, rape, corruption, and ransom demands – the horror experienced by migrants has been allowed to flourish for decades, according to a source inside the Southeast Asian trafficking industry.
Each year thousands of Rohingya refugees flee from Myanmar to camps at Cox’s Bazar across the border in Bangladesh. Seeking to continue their journey to countries such as Malaysia, they are vulnerable to the gangs who organise boat travel.
“We have to pay the local police [in Bangladesh] before making any voyage,” said Munirol, a broker for traffickers, who asked that his real name not be published to protect himself from police reprisals.
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The 59-year-old said he fled persecution in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the early 1990s and travelled to Cox’s Bazar. He later made the dangerous sea voyage to Malaysia, where he worked for eight years in construction before returning to Bangladesh, having become unhappy with the “tiresome and dangerous” work and being “regularly tortured” by supervisors and management.
While his only son stayed in Malaysia, where he drives a taxi, Munirol became a middle-man for migrant traders in Cox’s Bazar.
“This is easy money. We usually make 170,000 taka [$2,185] for every person that we can traffic to Malaysia,” he said, adding he personally gets $257 from each person sent.
Munirol said the traffickers bribe local authorities, including ruling party leaders.
“We will be forced to stop our operations if we do not pay them,” he said. “Everybody living in the coastal areas of Cox’s Bazar knows that the police help us. If we don’t pay them they will arrest us. We also have to pay the border guard officials.”
Al Jazeera contacted Bangladesh’s State Minister for Home Affairs Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal and Dhaka police chief AKM Shahidul Haque about the accusations, but received no response.
However, Colonel Mohammad Khalequzzaman, Border Guard Bangladesh’s sector commander for Cox’s Bazar, said he was unaware of such corrupt practices by authorities.
“This is the first time I am hearing this,” Khalequzzaman told Al Jazeera. “Our accountability is 100 percent. If we get proof of any such incidents where officials are taking money from traffickers, we will take prompt actions against them.”
The Southeast Asian migrant crisis has made worldwide headlines this year following the discovery of mass graves in the jungles of Thailand and Malaysia.
At least 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis were smuggled on traffickers’ boats in the first three months of 2015, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
UNHCR estimated 300 of those travellers died at sea, while it said the survivors were unaware they would have to pay up to $2,000 for their freedom on top of the $90-$370 boat fare.
Mohammad, a resident of Cox’s Bazar, has worked as a boatman for a number of such trafficking trips and is trying to get to Malaysia himself.
Also speaking under a false name to avoid arrest, he backed up Munirol’s claims that authorities are bribed to facilitate the illicit migrant trade, and told Al Jazeera the syndicates involved are comprised of three separate groups.
“The first group organises the victims. These are the poor and illiterate Rohingya and Bangladeshis in coastal villages. They are easily persuaded when they hear about earning income in dollars in Malaysia,” the 25-year-old said.
The migrants are then given to the second group, said Mohammad, which puts them on the fishing boats.
“At least 80 to 100 people are crammed into each trawler. The second group are also the ones who torture the migrants on the boat during the sea trips through the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea,” said Mohammad.
Once the boats reach the shores of Thailand, or neighbouring islands, the migrants are handed over to another group, he said. They are held hostage, tortured, and forced to call their families – from whom ransoms are demanded.
According to Mohammad, the migrants are taken across the Malaysian border only after the ransoms are paid to contacts of the traffickers in Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The illegal migrants’ journey to Malaysia – a regular route for them since the 1990s – has become more dangerous in recent years, said Tasneem Siddiqui, founder of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit at the University of Dhaka.
“In 2012, a network was formed by the traffickers of Bangladesh, Thailand, and Myanmar, as they realised that they can make more money through this process,” Siddiqui told Al Jazeera.
Siddiqui said the brokers and traffickers target “people from areas in Bangladesh which are more affected by climate change”. They lure those who are either jobless or homeless by promising lucrative work in Southeast Asia.
She said the traffickers “throw migrants into the sea” if they or their families don’t pay the ransom. Those who survive end up working on plantations or on fishing boats, where they are treated like slaves.
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UK-based human rights group Restless Beings said it has documented several cases of rape and sexual abuse of Rohingya and Bangladeshi women and children migrants in jungle camps and at sea.
“While the traffickers were in charge of the vessels, deals were made with Malay, Indonesian and Thai fishermen’s boats during their journey through the Andaman Sea,” Restless Beings’ founder Mabrur Ahmed told Al Jazeera.
“Groups of two to six women were forced onto the boats, where they would be held captive for days.”
The Rohingya are willing to risk such a perilous journey because of the treatment they face back home in Myanmar, according to Ahmed.
“The basic human rights of the Rohingya have been violated by the military government through arbitrary arrests, seizure of property and daily xenophobic abuse,” he said, adding ASEAN countries should intervene diplomatically so the Muslim ethnic minority can receive “equal citizenship” in Myanmar.