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Migrants seeking work can’t go west so head south on smugglers’ boats

We no longer have enough young men to farm our land or join the prayers in the mosque,” said a 50-year-old cleric Wazi Ullah from Leda village in the southern district of Cox’s Bazar, nearly 400 kilometres southeast of Dhaka, Bangladesh, according to an AFP report on May 21.

Denied their traditional route out of poverty in the Gulf states, yet often urged on by relatives, increasing numbers of young people from Bangladesh are joining the waves of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar trying to reach Southeast Asia on horrific boat journeys. 

As the plight of millions has worsened in Bangladesh in recent years, scores of men have left the grinding poverty of their villages throughout the country lured by the promise of jobs in the more prosperous, Muslim-majority Malaysia, according to officials and elders, and the smugglers who organise the perilous sea voyages have grown increasingly sophisticated, keen to cash in on their misery.

“People have borrowed at hefty interest rates or sold their gold ornaments or whatever precious farmland they have to pay for the deadly journeys,” said Ullah.

A farm labourer from Leda, Harunur Rashid, who earns between $14.88 to $19.84 (150 to 200 Bangladeshi taka) a day, said he was thinking of leaving. “There are hardly any jobs around here. My income is not enough for the six members of my family,” he said.

Rashid insisted that although migrants were perishing at sea, others were finding jobs in Malaysia thanks to the smugglers.

He said, “Putting effort in here is meaningless. At least (overseas) I would earn enough to keep my family going,” 

More than 25,000 people, many of them Rohingya fleeing persecution in neighbouring Myanmar but also economic migrants from Bangladesh, made the dangerous sea journey south from the Bay of Bengal between January and March this year, according to the United Nations (UN).

AFP reported experts as pointing to a lack of jobs as reasons for the exodus, particularly in rural areas, where plummeting prices for rice and other crops have only compounded the sense of desperation.

Although Bangladesh’s economy has been growing at over six percent annually, one-quarter of its people still live below the poverty line and the country is regularly struck by tropical cyclones and flooding. 

“People from the poor rural areas where natural disasters have struck or the crop farming is no longer profitable are desperately trying to seek better opportunities abroad,” said Tasneem Siddiqui, who heads a Bangladeshi think tank on migration issues.

Traditionally, Bangladesh’s men have flocked to the Gulf and other regions, to work in construction and other menial jobs to send cash to their families back home.

The country of 160 million people, which has long suffered from endemic corruption and political turmoil, relies on these multi-billion-dollar remittances to prop up its economy.

However the top three sources of employment for Bangladeshi migrants, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia have drastically cut their intake in recent years after their own job markets dried up.

Government figures show that 875,055 Bangladeshis worked overseas in 2008, most of them in the Gulf, but that figure dropped in recent years to only 425,684 in 2014. Female domestic workers are now in higher demand than labourers.

Malaysia halted the influx of workers in 2007 amid concerns about crime and illegal immigration via unscrupulous recruitment agents. The hiring resumed in 2013, but only 5,134 were granted entry last year.

AFP quoted a UN official who declined to be named, as saying that Bangladeshis first started to leave in boats for Southeast Asia in small numbers around 2005.

“Since then the traffickers’ network has become stronger and spread into the entire country. It has become one of the most profitable forms of organised crime,” the official said.

Many fishermen in Cox’s Bazar—where the smuggling rings are based—have joined the business. There is more money to be made that way than from catching fish.

“This is a multi-million-dollar industry with the involvement of gangs from Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia,” said Tofail Ahmed, a senior anti-trafficking police officer.

At Dariardighi, a village of 3,000 farm labourers 30 kilometres north of Leda, about 200 young men have left on rickety boats over the past four years, according to a local council chief.

For 21-year-old Abdur Rahim, 21, who was persuaded by his cousin to leave in 2013, the journey ended in disaster.

His father, Habib Ullah, recounted, “After 28 days, Rahim called me from the trawler. He begged me to send 200,000 taka ($19,800), saying the traffickers beat him every day on the ship.”

But Ullah did not know where to send the money. Then in April, another call came from two fellow passengers, saying Rahim was in a facility for the mentally ill in Thailand.


“The three were in the same boat,” Ullah said. “While the two fled to Malaysia, my poor son has gone mad,” he said. UCAN