Human traffickers in Bay of Bengal cast sights on Bangladesh

Abul Hasan, a 30-year-old fisherman, was drinking tea at a restaurant here when he was approached by two men who said they could help him get a good job at a factory in Malaysia.

He was told that he could pay for his passage after he started working, he said, so he followed the men to a nearby village to “see some brochures.”

traffic in Bay 111The next thing he remembers was waking up, nauseated, alongside more than a dozen other men aboard a fishing boat. Six guards armed with knives stood watch. “I knew I was in trouble,” he said.

Mr. Hasan was caught in what police and human-rights groups say is a surge in human trafficking along Bangladesh’s southeastern coast, as gangs that operated for years from Myanmar extend their reach.

Some victims go willingly, lured with promises of high-paying work abroad. Others are kidnapped, drugged or beaten. All are then waylaid and held for ransom—usually around 200,000 takas, or $2,600, each—before being delivered into de facto servitude, or worse, according to police and rights groups.

“I’m lucky,” said Mr. Hasan, who was rescued by police in a dawn raid on the boat where he was being held near Teknaf. “Some never make it back.”

Authorities say the traffickers are part of a criminal network that for years has preyed on Rohingyas, a largely stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar that has faced persecution at home. The gangs promise to deliver the refugees to Muslim-majority Malaysia—for a price.

As competition among the crime syndicates has increased, however, the traffickers now appear to be targeting neighboring Bangladesh as well.

“Since the end of last year, we noticed the number of Bangladeshis on the boats increasing rapidly,” making up to 80% in some cases, said Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, which monitors migration from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

traffic in BayThe group estimates more than 50,000 people were smuggled from those two countries to Thailand and Malaysia last year. Ms. Lewa said she expects the number to rise in 2014.

Bangladeshi police say that since the end of September, they have freed about 100 people a week during stepped-up coastal patrols, including Mr. Hasan.

Tofail Ahmed, police superintendent in the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar, said recruiting agents draw victims from around the country, then turn them over to traffickers from Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.

Fishing boats take them to cargo ships in the Bay of Bengal. Typically, the passengers are taken to Thailand, where they are held in jungle camps in the south while money is extorted from their families, according to police and rights groups including the International Organization for Migration.

A photo from the Bangladesh Coast Guard shows what it said were suspected human-trafficking victims crammed on a Thai trawler, who were rescued in June. ENLARGE

A photo from the Bangladesh Coast Guard shows what it said were suspected human-trafficking victims crammed on a Thai trawler, who were rescued in June. Reuters

Those whose families can pay are eventually taken overland to Malaysia and usually end up working illegally for rock-bottom wages in plantations with links to the crime syndicates.

Since September 2013, Malaysian police have rounded up and deported thousands of such undocumented workers on farms, construction sites and in factories as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration.

Thailand has grappled with how to dissuade traffickers from using it as a way station. A few years ago, it began turning back traffickers’ boats from its shores, but that led to hundreds of deaths at sea, according to rights groups. Recently, local officials have stepped up efforts to find the smugglers’ camps.

The U.S. State Department in June downgraded Thailand’s ranking to the lowest level in its annual human-trafficking report, citing deficiencies in law enforcement.

More than 130 people—nearly all of them Bangladeshi men—were freed last month from a camp in Thailand’s Phang Nga province. The victims told police they had been regularly beaten, abused and deprived of food.

Thai officials with knowledge of the rescue operation said some of the Bangladeshi men had rope marks on their wrists and ankles and had injuries consistent with beatings.

The men are being held at a Thai detention center while their cases are processed.

Selina Begum, the wife of one of those rescued, said she believed her husband had been kidnapped. “He would never have gone abroad without telling me,” she said in an interview. Relatives of two other men said they had paid as much as 200,000 takas to dalaals—or brokers—who promised to fly the would-be job seekers to Malaysia.

In the Jaliapalong fishing village in Cox’s Bazar, amid tin-roofed shacks, fishing nets and crushed snail shells, fishermen talk in hushed tones about the trafficking. The brokers are everywhere, and they are powerful, locals say.

“They tempt people with promises of wealth and they’ll tape your mouth shut if you make noise,” said fisherman Badiul Alam. Some said they were afraid to ship with an unknown crew for fear of being kidnapped. “Once you’re on the trawlers, you’re helpless,” said another man.

Fishermen work on the seashore in Teknaf, Bangladesh on Oct. 18. ENLARGE

Fishermen work on the seashore in Teknaf, Bangladesh on Oct. 18. Syed Zain Al-Mahmood/The Wall Street Journal

In June, five people died after Bangladeshi passengers fought with traffickers aboard a trawler bound for Thailand and the traffickers opened fire, according to Lt. Cmdr. Ashik Mahmud of the Bangladesh Coast Guard.

He said three suspected traffickers—two Thai nationals and one from Myanmar—were arrested. They are in jail awaiting trial.

Abu Bakar, 38, from Narayanganj district in central Bangladesh, made it to Malaysia in October 2013, he said, after three weeks in a camp in southern Thailand. In a telephone interview, he declined to give his exact location, but described his ordeal.

The smugglers had told him he could pay for his passage once he was working in Malaysia, but instead he was tortured at the camp until his family arranged to pay for his release. “They put me on the phone with my family and beat me with a stick so my mother could hear my screams,” he said.

His father, a farmer, sold his land to raise the money. After the family deposited 200,000 takas into a bank account in Bangladesh, the Thai traffickers took Mr. Bakar to Malaysia. He now does “backbreaking” work at a rubber plantation for a fraction of what he was promised in Bangladesh.

“I’ve lost everything,” he said. “It would have been better if I had died at sea.”

– Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, Wall Street Journal