One man’s nightmare journey across one of the ‘Deadliest Stretches of Water’
Increasing Numbers of Bangladesh Die While Trying to Get to Malaysia
By: Ahidul Islam
“In front of my eyes 19 people died, including my uncle. I set the body of my uncle float in the rough salt-water of the sea,” Sirajul Islam said with tearful eyes.
“My uncle was not buried in land, our family never offered flowers wishing ever lasting peace for his soul,” he kept crying and saying. Islam, 29, talked in his furniture shop at Khutakhali Bazar, in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh’s coastal Chittagong Division. The shop was filled with beautifully designed wooden furniture.
Taking a deep breath, Islam went back three years ago to remember when he was on a fishing boat bound for Malaysia.
It started with a promise.
“One day a customer came to me wanting to buy a couch. He told me that I could earn triple of money if I did the same work in Malaysia,” remembered Sirajul Islam.
“He promised me that only 20 thousand taka could fulfill my dream. He told me his name was Atik,” said Islam. Thus he and his uncle started their dream journey with human trafficker Atik.
“We gave him 35 thousand taka in the last week of March, which was a dark night, we set out by boat; we stayed two days at Sonadiaya Island,” he said. There, on the small island 9 kilometers off shore, he found 91 other people waiting to make the journey.
According to the UNHCR, an estimated 13,000 people among them the Rohingya from western Myanmar as well as Bangladeshi nationals left the Bay of Bengal on smugglers' boats in 2012, headed for jobs in Malaysia in 2012. Many never survive the rough seas on often rickety boats.
Some 485 people are reported to have drowned in four boat accidents in the Bay of Bengal that year, though the real death toll is believed to be much higher,” a recent United Nation report states.
The UN estimates that nearly 50 to 150 Bangladeshis travel to Malaysia every week by paying traffickers operating the illegal sea routes.
Illegal migration and sea accidents reach a peak each November to March:
• In the early hours of Sunday 3 November 2013, one such boat sank and 50 people died to cross the Bay of Bengal for Malaysia. Bangladesh Coast guards rescued only 10.
• On 31 October, 2012 another boat on its way to Malaysia reportedly sunk. Some 130 Rohingyas on board are believed to have drowned.
The escalating death toll prompted the United Nations from 2006 call that part of the Indian Ocean one of worlds “deadliest stretches of water.”
NGO officials say that initially mostly Rohingya and people of Cox’s Bazar trying to cross Bay of Bengal for Malaysia. “Now the scenario has changed,” said Shirajuddin Belal, program manager of Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), a Cox’s Bazar based NGO devoted to fighting human trafficking. “People from other district have also been rescued by the Coast Guards. That means the human trafficking gang has become stronger,” he said.
Several recent cases also suggest that the trend is increasing:
• On May 20, 2014, the Bangladesh Coast Guard rescued 60 people from the Bay of Bengal near Saint Martin’s island in Teknaf upazila while they were going to Malaysia illegally. They also arrested four traffickers and eight crews and seized two trawlers during the raid.
• In early April, 357 more Bangladeshis, who were illegally going to Malaysia on boat, were then held in detention in Thailand after trying to illegally enter Malaysia by sea, according to the Thai foreign office.
• On February 28, 72 Bangladesh and Rohingya were caught while trying to cross Bay of Bengal for Malaysia.
• On February 10, 2014 the Bangladesh Coast Guard rescued 211 people including 20 women and 17 children, near Saint Martin’s from a Thai fishing boat bound for Malaysia.
Hearing the news of these arrests Sirajul Islam the carpenter said “They are lucky as the guards caught them. They didn’t have to face a bad day like me.”
At night on Sonadiaya Island, the traffickers loaded the Islam, Islam’s uncle and the other 91 migrants into a 35-foot feet fishing wooden fishing boat. They carried puffed and processed rice, some other dry foods and a small bottle of water. The boat men served only one small meal per day. Food was gone after two days.
Islam said, “We sailed for seven to eight days. In the boat there was no place to sit, stand or sleep. There was no place for responding to the call of nature. Water was everywhere around us but there was not a single drop to drink. Most of the people became ill mainly by diarrhea.”
Take some time he said, “One morning we saw a boat and started crying for help. The boat came to us; they took us on their boat,”
A Thailand Navy patrol boat picked them up. They took them to their camp in one of the Thai
islands for six days. There they got food two times a day.
But after six days their journey started again. Taking some time, Islam continued, “At mid night, the Thai navy got us up. They made us stand in a row and beat us, asking us to get on a boat.
We begged them to make an arrangement for sending us back in Bangladesh. But they kept on beating and forced us to get on a boat. We walked a long distance for the boats. Upon reaching there they told us that we could reach Malaysian if we took the boat.”
They found more than 500 people there; most of them were desperately wishing to get back their home land. The Navy loaded them into four boats.
“There were at least 151 people like me on boat. Our boats were tied with a rope to a big Thai Navy ship. After the night a day passed. Another night followed, and then the morning sun rose.”
“Suddenly the Navy cut the rope. Our four boats were left to the mercy of the wind.”
Islam went on, “Thai Navy left us in the middle of sea; we did not know where we were, where we were going. Our boat was driven by the wind here and there. High seas and gusting winds nearly swamped the boat. We were literally in a hell awaiting death. We were sure that were going to die.”
Migration to Malaysia Started in 1990s
Rohingys first started going on boats to Southeast Asia, mainly Malaysia, in the 1990s. Only more recently Bangladeshi youths has begun joining them on the dangerous voyage. "Our observation is that, some of the survivors that only 30 to 40 percent of passengers on these boats were Rohingya refugees. The rest were all Bangladeshis," said, Lt. Col .Harun-or-Rashid, coastguard station commander in Saint Martin's Island, a small island area of only 8 km2 northeastern part of the Bay of Bengal.
Despite the fact that Bangladesh has signed a anti-human trafficking Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for smooth and legal migration, endemic poverty, illiteracy, lack of awareness, unemployment, and poor vigilance by law enforcement agencies means that almost every month news about illegal trafficking to Malaysia makes headlines.
In recent years, Malaysia has reduced the number of people who can legally enter the country.
From 2010 to 2012 only 2,065 Bangladesh workers went to Malaysia, according to the Bangladesh Economic Review.
That’s why unemployed young try to go to Malaysia by the sea illegal path, said the Malaysian Minister for Home Affairs in a meeting with the port city Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry office in April this year. While 1.4 Million registered Bangladeshi workers are registered to work in Malaysia, only about and around 2, 67,000 are illegal, he said.
Islam Adrift for 11 more Days
Islam and the other 151 fellow passengers on his boat were sailed by the wind for 11 days. There was no food. They tried to drink salty water out of thirst. Whoever drank water from the sea became ill.
“People started dying, one by one. 19 people out of 152 died, including my uncle, we thought we would all die, crying Islam said. The Islamic janaza funeral prayer was whispered over the washed and shrouded corpses them. Many gulped sea water, making them even weaker. The sick relieved themselves where they lay. Floor boards became slick with vomit and feces. Some people appeared wild-eyed before losing consciousness like they had gone mad, we all were weak, hungry, hopeless and ill men” said Islam.
“Our pain was more than dead man,” Islam continued. He said “It is shame to say now but we started drinking our own urine, dying in hunger and weakness. I was sure that my death was coming close. It was just a matter of time. With time we became so skinny that one could find nothing in our bodies except bones.”
Sirajul Islam paused and then started again, “At the twelfth night we saw a black hilly area.
Our hope flashed and in the morning we saw a green land. But the land was very far. We all desperately tried to run our boat paddling by our hands in the water. Some, out of hope, jumped off the boat in the sea and started swimming toward the green land.”
They reached the green island in the afternoon. They were so weak and feeble that they could not even walk; they literally crawled to towards the land. Luckily they found a little source of water from where they started drinking like cows. They fed on grass, leaves of trees and whatever seemed eatable. One Hundred Thirty Three people could reach the land. They were in the hills for two days, walking and searching for human beings.
“After two days, in the evening we saw two men in a small boat. We called them for help. They came to us. They spoke in English. We came to know that, we were in India. We begged for help. They took two people, because their boat was small, after one hour they came again with a big boat. And finally we saw food. It was banana. We devoured them like hungry monsters,” smiled Sirajul Islam.
Indian authorities gave them six months of jail for illegal entry into India. But they were there for nine months, eventually getting back to Bangladesh with the help of the Red Cross. One hundred and eighty three people came back. Others had been in Andaman jail before us.
Islam says he still does, not know the fate of the passengers of the other three boats loaded with his fellow migrants by the Thai Navy. “I neither met any of them during the time of my nine month imprisonment in Andaman jail nor even in Bangladesh.”
Just thinking of the terrible journey now makes him cry. He says he has nightmares almost every night, even now. “During my sleep I wake up screaming with streaming sweat. The experience visits me in my dreams,” said Islam.
“I am doing my business very well now,” Sirajul Islam says. Then he adds, “I suggest to everyone not to take life risks. If you want to do something, do it in Bangladesh. You can lead a far more happy life with your family. I request to everyone, please do not make any journey like this by boat!”