by Sam Jahan
In squalid camps in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled violence and persecution in neighboring Myanmar dream of a better life abroad – and rely on increasingly high-tech smuggling networks to get them there.
Dhaka denies new arrivals refugee status and, after a major crackdown sealed off ocean routes traditionally used to traffic migrants to Southeast Asia, many Rohingya are turning to complex smuggling operations to leave Bangladesh.
“People are desperate to leave the camps,” community leader Mohammad Idris says.
“Those who have money or gold ornaments are paying smugglers to get them out by air, and those who don’t are trying roads.”
The Rohingya, who live mainly in Myanmar, are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Many now live in grinding poverty in Bangladesh’s southeast coastal district of Cox’s Bazar, packed into camps that were home to more than 300,000 Rohingya even before some 70,000 new arrivals poured across the border after the Myanmar army launched a bloody crackdown last October.
Bangladesh denies them the right to work, and is proposing to rehouse them on a mosquito-infested island that regularly floods at high tide.
For years, rickety boats were the main mode of escape for Rohingya refugees, who paid hefty amounts to smugglers to get them to Malaysia and Thailand.
Those routes were cut off in 2015 when mass graves of migrants, many of them killed at sea, were discovered in Thailand, triggering global outcry and a major crackdown on traffickers.
But the smuggling networks swiftly identified new routes out of Bangladesh by air and road, using mobile payments to operate internationally.
Mohammad, an undocumented 20-year-old Rohingya, said he spent 600,000 taka (6,700 euro) to reach Saudi Arabia, where he now lives.
“I paid a local friend for a Bangladeshi passport and other papers. He also helped me pass through the immigration,” Mohammad told AFP using the WhatsApp messaging service. He asked that his family name not be used.
As it becomes more difficult for migrants to leave Bangladesh, many have been forced to head to destinations once considered less appealing.
Those who cannot afford flights are using buses and even traveling on foot to escape Bangladesh, going to India before moving on to Nepal or Pakistan. Some have even settled in the troubled Kashmir region.
There is no reliable data on the value of the smuggling trade, but estimates suggest it is worth millions of dollars in Bangladesh alone.
These networks arrange fake Bangladeshi passports and birth certificates for the Rohingya, a stateless ethnic minority denied citizenship rights in Myanmar even though they have lived in the Buddhist-majority nation for generations.
“It’s unbelievable how deep the traffickers’ grassroots network is and how smoothly they operate across nations,” says Shakirul Islam, head of the migrants’ welfare organization the Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program.
Migration expert Jalaluddin Sikder says a proliferation of mobile phone money transfer services in Bangladesh is making it easier for the traffickers to do business internationally.
“Multinational trafficking rackets are now a phone call away,” says Sikder, who works in Dhaka’s Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, Bangladesh’s main private think tank on cross-border migration.
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Research conducted in 2016 by a local charity uncovered complex underground smuggling networks that span the globe, using sophisticated technology to distribute payments globally without detection.
“They are efficient in distributing the money to all the key players,” says Selim Ahmed Parvez, researcher for the Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF).
Those players, he says, include corrupt politicians, police and government officials, as well as local smuggling agents and kingpins in the trade.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite force fighting militancy and organized crime in Bangladesh, has told AFP they are working to stop Rohingya being smuggled out of the country.
“It (smuggling) is happening here and we’re trying hard to identify the routes and the channels the smugglers use,” says Nurul Amin, RAB commander for Cox’s Bazar.
But tracking down the smugglers is only half the battle.
Fears are rising in the camps over a proposal to move the estimated 400,000 Rohingya living there to a desolate island in the Bay of Bengal – a fate many say they will do anything to avoid.
“We’ve successfully tackled the boat migration. And now our focus is on other smuggling routes,” says the RAB’s Amin.
“But if someone is so desperate to migrate, can you stop him?”