Camouflaging themselves among Rohingya refugees, many Bangladeshi men are taking risky and secret boat trips to Malaysia, seeking work there as illegal immigrants.
Between October 27 and November 7, two overloaded Malaysia-bound boats, which had sailed from Bangladesh with 245 people aboard, sank near the Bangladesh port of Teknaf.
International media reported that the people on the boats had been Rohingya refugees. But after interrogating 28 people who were rescued, Bangladeshi security agents found that almost half the people were Bangladeshis, not ethnic Rohingyas.
"Since the issue of the Rohingya interests the global community and some Rohingyas were on those two boats, the international media picked up the story. But many incorrectly reported that everyone on the boats were Rohingya refugees," said Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Zahid Hasan, head of Border Guard Bangladesh.
In relation to media coverage, he told DW, "It was nowhere reported that almost half of the people on the boats were Bangladeshis. These days on the Malaysia-bound boats sailing from Bangladesh, 60 to 65 percent of the people are Bangladeshis. They are not Rohingyas."
Rohingya sea route
According to Rohingya community leader Salimullah, the sea route from Bangladesh to Malaysia, via Thailand, was first used by Rohingyas in the mid-1990s.
Stateless Rohingya refugees, who had fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, took boats to reach Thailand, from where they travelled overland to Malaysia. "Soon, some enterprising Rohingyas set up an international human trafficking network to transport desperate people from Bangladesh to Malaysia, following the same route," said Bangladesh-based Salimullah.
"By using the sea-and-land route, traffickers helped Rohingya migrants reach Malaysia where they began working as illegal immigrants."
But Thailand has barred the boat people from its territory since 2010. So a number of boats from Bangladesh now land directly on Malaysia's west coast.
Sail now, pay later
Between October and March, when the sea in the region is calmer, scores of boats operated by traffickers set out from Bangladesh's coasts, carrying hundreds of people illegally headed for Malaysia.
"Rohingyas mostly from Cox's Bazar are heading for Malaysia on this illegal route. But now using their wider network, the agents are also managing to push desperate young [Bangladeshi] men from far-off Chuadanga, Jhinaidaha, Jessore, Khulna and other districts on to the boats," said Hassan.
Trafficking agents, spread across Bangladesh, entice the men with attractive offers, including employment in Malaysia. Jobless Bangladeshi youths find the route to Malaysia cheap and attractive, said Cox's Bazar-based journalist Abdullah Nayan.
"One willing to immigrate to a Gulf country or Malaysia has to spend at least 250,000 takas (2,400 euros). It's a huge amount for an average Bangladeshi. But an agent charges as low as 15,000 takas (140 euros) for one ticket on a boat," said Nayan, who reports on the trafficking network.
The rest of the fee, "usually between 100,000 and 130,000 takas," Nayan explained, could often be paid off in installments after the refugee landed a job in his new country.
In poor, densely populated Bangladesh, young men longed to escape to other countries to find work, with the Arab region a preferred destination, Abul Kashem Bhuian, a union council chairman in Bharuakhali, south Bangladesh, explained.
Jobs plentiful in Malaysia
"But in recent years, Bangladeshis are not getting work permits in Arab countries so easily any more. However, in Muslim-majority Malaysia, they can work, even as illegal immigrants.
"So Malaysia has now become their favorite destination," said Bhuian, who, himself has relatives working in Malaysia.
Golam Murtaza, who undertook a 2-week journey across the sea and reached Malaysia in January, said the country had a massive manpower shortage in its plantation, agriculture, construction and other sectors. Bangladeshis, therefore, easily found jobs there.
"Of the 126 people on my boat from Bangladesh, 70 of them were Bangladeshis. In this town where I am working, there are more than 500 Bangladeshis. Most of them came here via the same sea route. I have many friends in Bangladesh who are getting restless to take the same route to reach Malaysia," said Murtaza, 23, who is from Bangladesh's Magura district.
An agent in Bangladesh told DW she had a long line of Bangladeshis waiting to go to Malaysia: "I have already sent more than 200 Bangladeshis from our district to Malaysia in the past two sailing seasons. At least 150 young Bangladeshi men are waiting to take our boats in the coming weeks," a Cox's Bazar-based agent, known by her pseudonym of Rashida, told DW.