Promised lucrative jobs in Malaysia, the victims were secretly transported to Cox's Bazar by traffickers. A torturous sea voyage took them to Thailand where they were held hostage in jungles.
The captives had to pay ransoms of around Tk 2.5 lakh through their families back home for being moved to Malaysia.
A good number of the victims, estimated to be 400, went missing, while those pushed into Malaysia experienced terrible ordeals with some having irregular low-pay jobs and others languishing in jails.
These are the preliminary findings by a Sirajganj-based NGO, Development for Disadvantaged People. The Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit of Dhaka University and Manusher Jonno Foundation presented the data at a press conference at the Jatiya Press Club yesterday.
“The figure is horrifying. If it is true even for half the number, we are afraid of the figure [that may come] from the whole country,” said Professor Tasneem Siddiqui, chairman of the DU research unit.
Speaking at the press conference, Abul Hashem of Shahzajpur of Sirajganj said his elder brother Jubbar Ali, 40, a handloom worker, has been missing for seven months.
Jubbar was going to Malaysia by sea, though the family had no idea how he took it into his head to go abroad on a trawler.
Some 40 days later, Hashem got a phone call and heard a feeble voice of his brother saying he needed Tk 2.2 lakh for release from captivity in a place unknown to them.
Testimonies from other victims suggest Jubbar might have been held in Thai jungles.
“We felt he was tortured. We wanted him alive. Without giving any second thought, I borrowed money and sold land, and then sent the money to a contact number given to me,” Hashem said.
“That was all. There has been no phone call since then. We tried, but failed to connect,” he said, breaking down in tears. “Please tell us what we can do to get back my brother.”
Sohel Rana, executive director of Development for Disadvantaged People, said risking such dangerous voyages to Malaysia is nothing new for some people in the northern district, but the trend has been rising over the last one year.
The NGO official gathered information from seven upazilas of Sirajganj. A number of families told him that some people were tortured and dumped into the sea.
Referring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Tasneem Siddiqui said 87,000 people have gone to Malaysia or Thailand illegally since 2012.
People have long been illegally migrating by the Bay, but the frequency has increased rapidly in recent years. Still, the authorities have not taken any notable measures to bring the perpetrators to book.
Apart from the manpower brokers, international criminal gangs, pirates of the Andaman and Thai coast, and employers in Malaysia and Thailand are also involved in this crime, she noted.
According to migration experts, shrinking of legal channels of labour migration to Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia could be a major reason why fortune seekers are opting for the risky sea journeys.
They demanded forming a taskforce comprised of officials from the home, foreign affairs and expatriates' welfare ministries and a regional anti-trafficking body with officials from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.
Demanding investigation into all the cases of trawler rescue from the Bay, they called for a review of government-to-government recruitment arrangement for Bangladeshi workers, as only a few thousand can migrate through it.
Noor Khan, a director of rights body Ain o Salish Kendra, proposed setting up a taskforce, which will include representatives from NGOs working on migration, and maintain liaison with law enforcers.
Also speaking at the programme, Prof Dr CR Abrar of Dhaka University said, “We will consider if we will collaborate with the government in observing the International Migrants Day on December 18 if it does not take drastic actions on the matter.”
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