Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Agents exploit boat people misery

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

The migrants after they were rescued by the Indian coast guards (Picture: Sanjib Roy)
While some migrants have been rescued, it's feared many are dead

Relatives of illegal migrants who made ill-fated boat journeys from Bangladesh to Thailand say agents who arranged the trips are still trying to exploit them.

Family members contacted by telephone said the agents claimed the migrants were in jail in Thailand and wanted money to get them out.

The Thai military allegedly forced the migrants' boats back into the sea and set them adrift. Hundreds were rescued off India and Indonesia but hundreds more are still missing. The Thai army has officially denied forcing any of them to return.

Telephone interviews with family members reveal that the agents promised the migrants jobs in Malaysia - Thailand, they said, was only a transit point.

'Good job promised'

The migrants are mostly Rohingya Muslims originally from the Arakan province of Burma. Over the past 20 years many have fled from there to southern Bangladesh to escape what they say is persecution from Burma's military government.

While many have been repatriated from Bangladesh, thousands have remained and live in refugee camps in the far south-east of the country.

I think I have lost my son forever. He was the breadwinner for my entire family
Najib Ashraf

Most are cared for in camps run by the UN but there are also "unofficial" settlements - between the coastal town of Cox's Bazar and the Naff river which serves as the border between Bangladesh and Burma - where conditions are especially tough.

Shakila Khatun, a 25-year-old mother of three, lives in a UN camp at Nayapara near Cox's Bazar. Many Rohingyas live among the local population and not in any of the camps.

"My husband Ahmed left by one of these boats to Thailand in mid-December. We paid the dalal (agent) all we had and he promised my husband a good job in Malaysia. But now he is asking for more money to get Ahmed released from a Thai jail," Shakila told the BBC over the telephone.

When it was brought to her notice that the Thais have not arrested anyone but have allegedly pushed all the Rohingyas back into the sea, Shakila started to weep.

"I have been asking the agent for my husband's contact in Thailand, so that I can speak to him, but the agent would give me none," she said.

Ms Khatun said the agent had threatened her with "dire consequences" if she disclosed his identity to the Bangladesh police.

"I was against this boat journey all the while, but my husband was desperate to make a good living. He paid the agent some cash advance at the end of the last boat season in April and the agent asked him to be ready for the journey in December," she said.

When she was told that some of the boatpeople were rescued in India and Indonesia, while others possibly lost their lives, Ms Khatun said she feared the worst.

"Why is Ahmed not calling me if he is alive? We never fought in our married life," she said.

Teenaged daughters

Najib Ashraf's son Karim was another man from the unofficial Rohingya settlement at Leda, near Cox's Bazar, who joined Ahmed on the fateful boat journey.

The migrants after they were rescued by the Indian coast guards (Picture: Sanjib Roy)
The migrants alleged they were beaten and some thrown into the sea

"I think I have lost my son forever. He was the breadwinner for my entire family. So when the agent came to me for more money last week, promising to get Karim out of a Thai jail, I chased him away," said 65-year old Najib.

"Karim was 35 and the father of two teenage daughters. He took this risky voyage to save for their dowry. No-one is now left in this world to support these two girls. I am an old man and I have no strength to work for his family."

Khaleda Begum is a mother of five children at the Leda Rohingya settlement. Her husband, Anis Mohammed, was also on a boat.

She told the BBC that her family paid 35,000 taka ($512 - a fortune for poor refugees) to the agent.

"Now this agent wants another 30,000 Bangladesh taka ($439) to get Anis released. But we have no money left and can give him nothing," said Ms Khaleda.

She told the BBC that the agent was denying media reports about the pushback of the boat people by the Thais.

"He says they are in jail and we will get them out," Ms Khaleda said.

Khaleda said two of her neighbours lost four of their sons who had travelled in the same boat as her husband.

Bangkok-based human rights activists say more than 1,000 boat people, mostly Rohingyas and some poor Bangladeshis, have been intercepted by the Thai military and pushed back into the sea in boats without engines or enough food and water.

They say that Indian and Indonesian coastguards have rescued about 500 of them - the rest are missing, possibly drowned in the Andaman sea.

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