Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In Bangladesh, middlemen cash in on Rohingya refugees

  • Suliman Niloy from the Myanmar border, with Samin Sababa in Dhaka,  bdnews24.com
    Published: 2017-09-14 09:42:41 BdST


The Naf river flows over a large section of the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

When the tides ebb, some might manage to swim across its width that stretches more than a kilometre. But not every Rohingya refugee fleeing death in Rakhine can brave these waters.

They place their hopes on the fishing boats. For some, the passage means paying with whatever little they own, be it money, jewellery or farm animals.  

The boats filled with refugees keep coming to these otherwise quiet shores of Shah Porir Dwip, and their misfortune means fast fortune for some.

Abdul Karim, a Myanmar refugee, recently crossed the river with 13 members of his family. Now at Teknaf's Shamlapur, he said he paid Tk 60,000 to the boatman.

Another said he paid Tk 5,000 for every family member. Those without cash paid 'the fare' with nosepins or earrings. Some said the boatmen took their money and jewellery by force.

There were a couple of people who crossed for free. So far nearly 400,000 refugees have sought refuge in Bangladesh through various points on the border.

Eight boats arrived at 'Gular Chor', a group of islands on the eastern tip Shah Porir Dwip, between morning and afternoon on Tuesday.

It was the same day Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, visiting official camps in Cox's Bazar, urged the locals to make sure "the plight of the refugees is not exploited for the sake of making a fortune”.

But it was a different scene at Ghular Chor.

Coastguards chased down one of the fishing boats carrying refugees. The three boatmen on board stopped the vessel still far from shore. They dashed out of the boat, but the coastguards managed to catch one.

As this happened, another boat brought refugees to the shore, unhampered.

When asked about the very visible discrimination, a coastguard said, "These men are middlemen. They take a lot of money to bring the refugees here."    

He refused to say it on camera.

While this conversation went, a group of Rohingya refugees wept nearby. Then an elderly man among them claimed to be the father of the boatman caught by the coastguards.

He said his son came to Bangladesh more than a decade ago and has since settled in Shamlapur. Hearing about the latest army crackdown, he went to get his parents from their village.

Nearby, the boat burned on the shores where several other boats were bringing in refugees, an eerie image that signalled a sad reality.

The open secret

Along the part of the marine drive that spanned from Cox's Bazar to Teknaf were docking yards for fishing trawlers. Tuesday morning brought good catches for the fishermen, so not a lot of boats were docked there.

But fishermen sat idle at Shah Porir Dwip.

"The boats you're seeing out in the water are somehow involved in ferrying refugees and their cows. For every trip, these boats pay up to Tk 20,000 to the border and coastguards," said a fisherman who asked not to be named.

The boats that refuse to make these payments are chased down and set afire by the coastguards, he alleged. "We want to work, catch fish at sea. I don’t know why we have to sit here instead of that. Who knows when all this will end!"

Some locals at Shah Porir Dwip have been exploiting the refugees, said Lt Col SM Ariful Islam, commander of the Border Guard Bangladesh Battalion-2 stationed in Teknaf.

"Our actions are exemplary. We catch some to set examples for the others. But we have not been burning boats for the past several days at Shah Porir Dwip. The coastguard did.”

 "We have been working day and night but have not been able to do everything a human should do," said the BGB commander. "We'll take action against any personnel if there are specific allegations."

The coastguard however was unavailable for comment.

Most of the refugees who arrive through various border points have been bringing in cattle. But their cows are no longer there once in no man's land.

The refugees have been selling off their animals before entering an uncertain future in a foreign land. The locals have been taking advantage of this desperation. 

Speaking to some residents of Shah Porir Dwip, they said some of them have been crossing the Naf to buy cows owned by refugees in Myanmar for very low prices. They sell those cattle in markets back home for profit.    

An auto-rickshaw driver said he bought two goats from a refugee for Tk 2,500.