Tortured, sold as a slave three times and consumed with guilt after seeing his cousin drown before his eyes, Bangladeshi teenager Khaled Hossain fears he will never recover from the trauma of his failed attempt to reach Europe.
While hundreds of thousands of Rohingya escape into Bangladesh fleeing what UN calls “textbook ethnic cleansing” in Myanmar hoping for a better life, there is an exodus of Bangladeshis who feel salvation lies elsewhere.
Experts warn with slowdown of the rate of poverty reduction in recent years, slower growth in agriculture, a drop in remittances, lack of job opportunities, wealth inequality and challenges of reaching the hard-to-reach poor people, the Rohingya refugee crisis will push more disaffected Bangladeshis to attempt risky journeys in a bid to make their fortunes elsewhere.
“I was excited that within hours we would be in Italy. All my family’s financial troubles will be over. I thought I could now prove myself worthy to my paralysed father,”
Instead, many are sold as slaves before they even reach port, and those that do secure a boat – like Hossain’s young cousin – may not survive the journey.
“I am consumed by guilt,” said Hossain, who has returned, broken, to Bangladesh.
“I will have to live with his death for the rest of my life,” he added.
More than 100 people squeezed into the tiny boat he and his cousin Farid took from Libya to Italy, many were Africans, but there were dozens from Hossain’s hometown of Beanibazar, as well as elsewhere across the country.
Three hours after the 30-foot (10-metre) plastic vessel had set off from Libya, it broke down and started to sink.
There was “panic”, Hossain recounted. One Bangladeshi youth was crushed to death in the rush and other passengers jumped into the sea, never to be seen again.
Several emptied cans of petrol on the boat floor so they could use the containers to float in the water.
“Our feet burned when they dipped in the petrol,” he explained, adding that Farid jumped into the sea to escape the burning.
The teenager saw a ship on the horizon and attempted to swim for help, but did not survive.
“I saw his lifeless body floating,” Hossain recalled.
More than 2,700 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, according to the UN, with Bangladeshis top of the list of people rescued.
Hossain plucked from the sea by a Libyan gang and spent three months in the war-torn nation working as a slave on construction sites.
He says he was sold at least three times. His father, severely debilitated after a stroke, paid $12,000 in total to secure his release.
Hossain recalled: “We were tortured. Many were raped and sodomised at gunpoint.”
Bangladesh’s population has soared in recent years and despite reasonable growth over the past decade, opportunities for work are limited.
The number of Bangladeshis on the Libya-to-Italy route has risen from a few dozen in 2014 to about 11,000 from June 2016 to March this year, according to official figures, though some estimates put the figure as high as 30,000.
In Beanibazar alone, an estimated 1,000 young men have made the $10,000 journey in the past year, council chairman Ataur Rahman Khan told AFP.
“Young men are desperate to go to Italy via Libya. Fathers are borrowing money and mothers are selling heirlooms to pay the traffickers,” Khan said.
The situation may worsen as the arrival of more than half a million Rohingya refugees who have fled an army crackdown in Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine State since puts an immense strain on Bangladesh’s resources.
Authorities have allocated a huge swath of land in the country’s southeast in an effort to confine some 800,000 Rohingya into a settlement set to be the world’s largest refugee camp.
Migration expert Jalal Uddin Sikder told AFP that if authorities “failed to find a solution” to the refugee crisis, then the situation would “fuel” the exodus out if Bangladesh.
Sikder added traffickers use rare success stories of migrants who have reached Europe to lure tens of thousands of others to follow suit.
He explained: “They sell stories of success to jobless youths, causing enormous peer pressure in families. One or two deaths at sea or reports of kidnappings just don’t matter any more.”