Migrants set sail in secret from south-eastern tip of Bangladesh (The Straits Times)

TEKNAF (Bangladesh) – Sitting on the south-eastern tip of Bangladesh, Teknaf is a perfect place for boats carrying migrants looking for work to set sail for Thailand and Malaysia in absolute secrecy.

From the coast there, the trips to the two countries from Bangladesh are the shortest. And with Teknaf’s unique location, it is easier for traffickers – who would later hold the migrants for ransoms – to dodge law enforcers.

As night falls, traffickers bundle their prey into fishing trawlers and leave for the two destinations from several points on the coast. Locals and traffickers have come up with a name for these departure points: “Malaysia airports”.

The traffickers use a route along the edges of the waters of Bangladesh and Myanmar, slipping by Bangladeshi navy and coast guard and similar forces of Myanmar just across the Naf River.

The “Malaysia airports” are full of supplies needed for the journey: Dry food, medicine and life jackets. The area also has dozens of mobile banking outlets, through which much of the ransom money is transacted.

Sometimes, family members of the victims travel all the way to the remote area from across the country to pay the ransom. At other times, transactions are made through bank accounts and mobile banking.

The “airports” are located mainly in Katabunia, Khurermukh and Sonapara.

“Sonapara has everything a voyager needs on the way,” said Mr Abul Kashem, executive director of the Ukhia branch of Help, a non-government organisation.

“The number of these ‘airports’ is increasing because the human-trafficking business is booming. Also, traffickers keep changing routes all the time.”

Many houses in these areas lodge job seekers for 500 takas (S$8.50) a night. Local children make money through buying things for the job seekers, who are not allowed to go out until they board the boats.

Noapara in Teknaf is notorious for human trafficking. It is where many of the abductions by traffickers allegedly take place.

The thriving Noapara bazaar is one of the last points in the south of mainland Bangladesh. Shops there selling fancy cellphones have human traffickers as their main customers, locals said.

There are also shops selling large water containers, sacks of puffed and flattened rice, fruits, biscuits and drinks for the job seekers. These shops usually do not sell anything in small quantity. Everything is sold in bulk.

Madam Samuda Begum, 60, was taking her morning walk along Sonapara beach one morning last October when The Daily Star team was visiting.

While walking, she came across a familiar sight: sandals – 35 pairs – lying on the beach.

She took them home like she did in the past.

“The job seekers have to take off their sandals before boarding the boats,” she explained.

“It means 35 job seekers left from there last night.”

THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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