Promising jobs in Malaysia, transnational human traffickers held about 250,000 Bangladeshis captive in Thailand for ransom over the last eight years and realised tens of millions of taka from them, The Daily Star can report.
Lured into the trap, many of the country's poor people make the voyage in cargo vessels through sea to Thailand first, hoping to cross into Malaysia overland.
But before the jobseekers can make it to their final destination, their dreams turn into a collective nightmare. Held in crammed and filthy conditions in Thai jungles for months or even years, they are often beaten and starved for ransom.
Thailand is a strategic location for holding victims in remote mountains dotting that country's coast, said a Bangladeshi expatriate in Malaysia who turned broker.
"The migrants are confined in Thailand to realise the ransom before they are sent to Malaysia, because in the past some jobseekers fled from Thailand without paying. It is better to settle the business at the right time," he told this newspaper by phone on condition of anonymity.
Only on Saturday, the Thai authorities found 26 bodies from mass graves where trafficking victims from Bangladesh and Myanmar are suspected to have been buried in an abandoned jungle camp located in Sadao district of Songkhla province.
In October last year, Thai police rescued 134 trafficked victims confined in a Southern Thailand rubber plantation deep in a jungle. The BBC had reported all the victims were Bangladeshis, but the Bangladesh authorities said 118 were Bangladesh nationals while the rest 16 were Rohingyas from Myanmar.
Earlier in September, a group of 37 people, also reportedly Bangladeshis, were rescued from the jungle.
All this exposes how a modern-day slave trade has taken a firm root in Bangladesh and also in this region. Beaten, abused and left with no food, these wretched men tell a horrific tale of how they were abducted in the style of the 17th century slave trade in Africa and forced to work in the plantation in hazardous conditions.
THE LUCRATIVE BUSINESS
According to the broker in Malaysia, traffickers' agents spread across Bangladesh get between Tk 5,000 (S$84) and 10,000 for each person supplied to the chain, and the godfathers in Cox's Bazar pocket between Tk 15,000 and 30,000.
The jobseekers are not released from the Thai jungles until their Thai captors get confirmation from the traffickers in Bangladesh that they received ransom from the victims' families. The amount varies, but it is usually between Tk 2 lakh (200,000; approx S$3390) and 3.5 lakh per victim.
Much of the ransom is transacted through mobile banking, and the traffickers and their brokers have underhand dealings with local agents of various mobile banking services.
Under pressure from the traffickers to pay the ransom by the deadline, helpless families sell their last pieces of land, often their homesteads, or take loans from local lenders at high interest rates.
Information on the trade and its size is hard to come by due to its clandestine nature. But victims and NGOs working on the issue say the network is spread over Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.
According to a UN report released in December last year, about 53,000 people from Bangladesh and Myanmar voyaged to Malaysia and Thailand by sea that year alone.
Estimates by local and international NGOs are based on secondary sources, mainly media reports, and do not reflect the true magnitude of the problem.
In November last year, this newspaper interviewed eight trafficked victims at home and in Malaysia, six union chairmen of Cox's Bazar's coastal area and several rights activists to get an idea of the trade.
The figures they gave are staggering: At least two cargo vessels, each carrying about 500 people, leave Bangladesh territory from about 20 nautical miles southeast of the St Martin's Island every week, eight months a year. Usually, the business is down in June-September because of rain and turbulent sea.
This means some 4,000 people are trafficked every month or about 32,000 a year. And if Tk 2 lakh ransom were realised from each of them, the amount would stand at Tk 64 crore (640 million; approx S$10.8 million).
But not all the victims' families can pay ransom. The victims interviewed said some fail to arrange the money, and many of them are sold as slaves.
That people are sold as slaves in Thailand even to this day comes as no surprise. In 2013, the Guardian reported how the over 7-billion worth Thai seafood industry is built on slave labour, as âghost shipsâ reach the Thai shore along the Andaman Sea from northeastern direction (Bangladesh-Myanmar).
The British newspaper found one can get a slave for around £250 (S$519) in Thailand, while Reuters news agency put the price between US$155 (S$204) and US$1,550.
"I believe the actual number of people migrating through the route will exceed the estimate [by The Daily Star]," said Teknaf's Katabuniya UP Chairman Hamidur Rahman.
From 2011 to 2013, between 50,000 and 1,00,000 jobseekers made the voyage through the Reju canal estuary point alone, said Abul Kashem, executive director of Help, an Ukhia-based NGO.
The Daily Star's estimate of 2.5 lakh Bangladeshis being trafficked over the last eight years is based on information given by victims and rights activists, and is therefore not definitive. It is rather a conservative estimate. And the calculation was done for the past eight years because we could trace back victims of only thus far.
Of the estimated victims, 10 to 15 per cent are Rohingyas, according to Teknaf and Ukhia police.
Those who returned home after rescue cannot give any name, but say the trade is controlled by several organised rings.
Jewel Barua, 22, is one of those rescued by the Thai police from a jungle in January last year. He had been abducted and shipped to the country in November 2013.
In the jungle he was held, he saw a woman-only group running the business. The leader of the group was called "Kaka Rani and looked like a Thai national".
Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, Thailand, said there were tens of thousands of people in this predicament, being beaten and tortured for ransom, whether at sea, in jungle camps, or in other holding areas in Malaysia.
"In some cases, Thai authorities have been complicit in human trafficking, selling detainees to criminal syndicates, who then bring them to traffickers' camps," he told this paper in an email late last year.
In January this year, Thai authorities confirmed more than a dozen government officials, including senior policemen and a navy officer, were being tried for involvement or complicity in human trafficking.
On the Bangladesh side, Teknaf and St Martin's Island are at the heart of the trade. After arriving from different districts of the country, fortune seekers are kept in houses along the Teknaf coast and robbed of all their belongings, even their sandals.
On the fixed dates, they are walked to the boats by the brokers' assistants, who are usually local people.
Captains of most of these vessels are Thai nationals. Once taken to Thai coast, the victims are separated into groups named after the godfathers in Teknaf and Cox's Bazar who send them.
In clearings cut out in parts of the dense Thai jungles, traffickers set up numerous tarpaulin tents for the jobseekers, who are shifted from one place to another for security reasons and to facilitate intrusion into Malaysia.
The shifting requires hours of journey in pickup-style roofless vehicles. On its open back are placed 20 migrants, who are then wrapped up by a porous plastic sheet. On the way, whenever asked, presumably by police, what was being carried under the sheet, Jewel Barua heard his captors say: "Vegetables."
In addition to those held captive in jungles, there are reserve supplies of migrants in the bushes atop Thai hills and islands along the coast and also in cruising ships moored in the Andaman Sea, according to victims and brokers.
The reserve is for backups, in case of a supply of migrants getting caught by cops.
FROM A FREE MAN TO A SLAVE
There are diverse ways to intrude into Malaysia from Thailand. Youths from a Thai clan called Shan are used in pushing migrants into Malaysian territory by cutting fences.
Anis, a victim, had to run for about five minutes through a field to cross the border. There were several women and kids in their group of 42.
Before and after crossing over to Malaysia, the Pabna man met people working in houses along borders of both the countries for no pay, as they failed to pay ransom.
Anis was lucky. He paid the money while in Thailand, and his elder brother, who was already in Malaysia, picked him up from the border dotted with houses, known as "receive houses" built for keeping trafficking victims.
The rest of the victims were sent to these houses. There, a man named Nazrul Islam was sold by the traffickers to a Malaysian construction supervisor, although he paid Tk 1.8 lakh in ransom. Once a freeman however poor, he is a slave now.
It is hard to tell what happened to the rest of the group. As for Anis, he now works as a cleaner in Malaysia -- a job his brother has found for him.
"It is a myth that traffickers will arrange jobs for trafficking victims," said Nazrul by phone.
"People are still being lured into the voyage" he said, adding: "Maybe some trafficking victims are boarding a cargo vessel right at this moment somewhere in the wide, wide Bangladesh sea."