Boat-people being ransomed off Bangladesh

The horror of human trafficking through South East Asia has taken another nightmarish twist with passengers now being ransomed to return home to Bangladesh, say reliable sources.

Human cargoes had been loaded on board as many as 16 vessels, ready for delivery to the Thai-Malaysia border, when Thai authorities finally exposed scores of graves near the traffickers’ secret jungle camps earlier this month.

rohingyaCutting off the huge illegal trade in people left thousands stranded at sea by the no-go nations, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia – plus thousands more stuck on boats off Bangladesh.

The adapted trafficking trawlers would usually pick up more passengers – some coming on board voluntarily, others coerced or kidnapped – as vessels cruised south past Burma’s troubled Rakhine state to Thailand.

However, with a crackdown and the dangers of apprehension suddenly much greater, the traffickers at anchor off Bangladesh have chosen to unload their human cargoes – while making as much money as possible.

“A return-to-shore fee of several hundred dollars is being demanded by some traffickers, even though the vessels are anchored just a short distance from land,” Phuketwan was told.

“The brutality is the same as it would be if the journey had been completed. Passengers will be beaten up within earshot of their families over a mobile telephone.

“Instead of paying to reach their destination in Malaysia, these poor people now have to pay a fee to return home.”

With as many as 16 boats at anchor each capable of carrying 350, more than 2000 captives could be subjected to this process.

After the exposure by Phuketwan of the inhumane “pushbacks” from Thailand in 2009, the trade in Rohingya from Burma grew rapidly.

Traffickers expanded their business to Bangladesh, paying touts to sell “tickets to your new life” or to coerce or even kidnap others to fill every available space.

There were few arrests and little enforcement, with the Royal Thai Navy and other authorities “helping on” vessels with food, water, motor repairs and medicines to keep Bangladeshis and Rohingya at sea and out of Thailand.

Boats carrying thousands of would-be refugees managed to evade contact at sea and on land as they were secretly transferred hundreds of kilometres by road from Thailand’s Andaman coast, north of Phuket, to the jungle camps along the Thai-Malaysia border.

Over the years, successive governments in Thailand ignored reports by Phuketwan and other news outlets of traffickers’ rapes, brutality and even murders, allowing the covert business to grow.

Villagers along the Andaman coast and further south joined in, knowing the chances of getting caught and punished were virtually non-existent.

These days, more than 50 percent of the traffickers’ captives are Bangladeshis. An estimated 25,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya boarded traffickers’ boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many as in the same period of 2014, the UN refugee agency has said.

Now, even with the full extent of the horrific trade exposed, the nations of the region continue to deny responsibility and still protect Burma, the nation where it all began – and where it should end.

Fifteen nations including Bangladesh are due to meet to discuss trafficking in Bangkok on May 29 but Burma may not be there.