Bangladesh has arrested more than a dozen people from Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority and two men accused of trying to smuggle them illegally into Malaysia by boat, police said on Wednesday.
The two Bangladeshis were charged with people smuggling offences after arranging the trip to Malaysia, the first time in two years would-be migrants have attempted to journey there by boat, said Teknaf police chief Mainuddin Khan.
‘Acting on a tip-off, we arrested 19 Myanmar nationals from a house in Teknaf on Tuesday as they gathered there for a boat trip to Malaysia,’ Khan told AFP.
‘They said they paid Tk 10,000 ($125) each for the trip.’
Tens of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshi economic migrants seeking jobs have made the treacherous journey across the Bay of Bengal toward the relatively prosperous nations of Thailand and Malaysia.
But in 2015 thousands of refugees on boats were turned away by Southeast Asian nations, triggering a regional crisis and a crackdown on the people smuggling trade.
This latest attempt to revisit the once-popular route was the first known case since of Rohingya attempting to reach Malaysia, Khan said.
Rohingya leaders based in refugee camps in Bangladesh told AFP that boat trips had ground to halt after the 2015 clampdown, with many refugees now trying new routes to other regions, including the Middle East.
‘As people are desperate to leave, these traffickers are now getting prepared to exploit them,’ Rohingya community leader Mirza Ghalib told AFP.
For decades hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar have taken refuge in Bangladesh’s southeastern towns of Cox’s Bazar, Ukhia and Teknaf.
Since October their numbers have swelled as a brutal crackdown by the Myanmarese army in western Rakhine state sent 70,000 fleeing across the border into Bangladesh.
The overcrowded, dirty camps are ripe for human traffickers offering a way out.
At one camp Rohingya elder Abu Zafar said the refugees caught by police trying to reach Malaysia had endured hunger, poverty and the ‘toughest test of patience’.
‘They tried to migrate to Malaysia for a better future. It was a do or die situation for them,’ he told AFP.
‘The trafficker rackets are getting organised and activated again. They are a mixed gang of both Bangladeshi and Rohingya people.’