Being the largest refugee settlement in the world, Cox’s Bazar has been an alluring place for traffickers and smugglers

In April last year, 396 stranded Rohingya refugees were rescued by Bangladesh coastguard from the sea in Cox’s Bazar after remaining 54 days adrift at sea where they attempted to get to Malaysia but were pushed back by Malaysian navy due to COVID fear. On the way back, they ran out of water, food and sadly 32 of them died on the boat. Stories about girls being abused, tortured, raped by the boatman and traffickers are also heard from the survivors. In other words, the experiences shared by the survivors are disturbing and horrific.

Such incidents get huge international media coverage. International human rights organisations have always been expressing grave concern about the international network of human traffickers active in the South-East Asian countries, profiting from the misery of the Rohingya people and committing crimes against humanity. People who are trafficked often end up facing slavery, starvation, torture, sexual exploitation and abuse, forced labour and marriages. These are clearly violations of human rights and are prohibited under international human rights law.

In recent years, almost all the voyages reported to have been made from Cox’s Bazar camps, are aiming to reach Malaysia. Among the refugees taking this journey, there is a significant number of woman and children. In the camps, there are agencies working to stop human trafficking and to mobilise awareness among the refugees about this. Now the question remains, why do the refugees make such perilous voyages even after knowing the huge risk of life involved?

Normally, people guess refugees dare to take these journeys as human traffickers convince them, luring them with dreams of a better life overseas. However, having worked in the camps with the refugees, seen the horrible experiences of the survivors, what makes them undertake such voyages has always haunted me. I try to look deep into their motivations behind this.

Being the largest refugee settlement in the world, Cox’s Bazar has been an alluring place for traffickers and smugglers. It is not unknown that refugees are extremely vulnerable to such exploitation. On top of that, the Rohingya refugee camps are overcrowded. The Rohingya are uneducated, helpless and destitute. It all has made them perfect prey for traffickers.

Given Myanmar’s systematic state sponsored persecution, repression, violence, denial of rights and citizenship for decades, today Rohingya people are living as refugees in many countries – Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and Thailand. Many of them have lost their families, social networks and protection as people have left Myanmar in many phases whenever violence erupted. A pretty big number of the families in the camps have relatives living abroad like Malaysia, Middle East, etc. A husband may be living in Malaysia and his wife is the camps with their children. As their possibility to return to Myanmar seems a far cry, these people want to get united elsewhere and human traffickers take advantage of their situation.

Human trafficking is one of the biggest challenges in Rohingya refugee camps.

In the camps, many have lost hope about the possibility of going back to their homes in Myanmar. With such a big displaced, persecuted and uneducated population living in highly congested camps where violence towards women and conflicts among groups are so pervasive, ensuring proper protection has been a big challenge. As a result, sometimes in search of safety, better life and in pursuit of reuniting with family members abroad, they might dare to take such risky journeys.

Though it is apparently unthinkable, yet cases like adolescent girls being sent to Malaysia by parents or caregivers for marriage purposes through such voyages are also seen. And sex trafficking with false marriage commitment has also been reported. Many Rohingya men are there in Malaysia who like to marry Rohingya girls. For them, there is no better alternative to take the girl from the camps to Malaysia, making deal with human traffickers. Having lost everything, being refugees in another country, to many Rohingya it does not seem to be a big deal to risk their lives and undertake such voyages.

A refugee crisis like that of the Rohingya is indeed complicated. These people were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar and took refuge in Bangladesh temporarily, so this is a humanitarian refuge. Nobody knows exactly when the crisis will be resolved and they will be able to go back home. So nothing permanent for them is possible to be done in the camps, yet much has been done. No matter how much efforts are made to make it livable, a refugee camp can never be like a home. They have nothing to look forward to except waiting for the moment to go home. In other words, there is circumstantial coercion behind choosing such voyages.

Fortunately, due to proper measures taken timely, COVID-19 has not hit hard in the overcrowded camps where physical distancing is hardly possible and hygiene awareness among them is so poor. But it has made them vulnerable otherwise. Since March 2020, schools, learning centers, child playing spaces and community centers are closed, restricting the little opportunities for their children to learn and have some good times. As a result, more children are becoming vulnerable to child labour, trafficking, abuse, child marriage and so on.

Nearly a million Rohingya people escaped violence and persecution in Myanmar in 2017 and took shelter in Bangladesh. It has been nearly four years that they are living in temporary shanties in the sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar. All agencies particularly UN, RRRC and security forces have been working to stop human trafficking and improving protection of the refugees. Yet human trafficking is one of the biggest challenges in Rohingya refugee camps. The most deep-down reason is prolonging the solution to their crisis. The longer it takes to ensure their return homes, more the world may see Rohingya being lured and trafficked through such voyages.

* Parvez Uddin Chowdhury is a protection worker and researcher

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