(THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Promising jobs in Malaysia, a gang of human traffickers held about 250,000 Bangladeshis captive in Thailand for ransom over the past eight years and made millions of taka (a million taka is about S$17,000).
Lured by dreams of a better life, many of the country's poor boarded cargo vessels to arrive in Thailand first and then travel overland to Malaysia.
However, before they could make it to their final destination, their dreams turned into a collective nightmare. Held in crammed and filthy conditions in jungles for months, even years, they were often beaten up and starved for ransom.
Thailand is a strategic location for holding victims in remote mountains dotting the coast, a Bangladeshi expatriate in Malaysia said.
"The migrants are confined to Thailand until a ransom is paid before they are sent to Malaysia. In the past some of these job seekers fled without paying. It's better to settle the business at the right time," he said, on condition of anonymity.
This past Saturday, Thai authorities retrieved 26 bodies from a mass grave in an abandoned jungle camp in Sadao district in Songkhla province, where trafficking victims from Myanmar and Malaysia were believed to have been buried.
In October last year, Thai police rescued 134 trafficked victims confined in a remote rubber plantation in the south of Thailand. The BBC reported that all the victims were Bangladeshi, though Bangladeshi authorities said 118 were Bangladesh nationals while the rest were Rohingya from Myanmar.
Earlier in September, a group of 37 people, also reportedly Bangladeshi, was rescued from the jungle.
All this just sheds a light on how modern-day slave trade has taken firm root in Bangladesh and across the region. Beaten, abused and left with no food, these men tell a horrific tale of how they were abducted and forced to work in a plantation in hazardous conditions.
According to the Malaysian broker, traffickers agents spread across Bangladesh get between 5,000 taka and 10,000 taka for each person supplied to the chain, and the godfathers between 15,000 and 30,000 taka.
The job seekers are not released from the Thai jungles until their captors get confirmation from the traffickers in Bangladesh that they have received ransom from the victims' families. The amount varies, but it is usually between 200,000 and 350,000 taka per person.
Much of the ransom is paid via 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 piece of land, often their homesteads, or take loans from loan sharks 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, some 53,000 people from Bangladesh and Myanmar voyaged to Malaysia and Thailand by sea last 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, Daily Star interviewed eight trafficked victims at home and in Malaysia, plus six union chairmen from Cox's Bazar's coastal area and several rights activists to get an idea of the trade. The figures they provide are staggering:
At least two cargo vessels, each carrying about 500 people, leave Bangladesh from every week for 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 the 200,000 taka ransom were realised from each of them, the amount would stand at 6.4 billion taka.
But not all families can pay ransom. The victims interviewed said some fail to arrange the money, and many were sold as slaves.
The fact that people are sold as slaves in Thailand even to this day comes as no surprise. In 2013, the Guardian reported how the Thai seafood industry, worth over US$7 billion (S$9 billion) annually, is built on slave labour, as "ghost ships" reach the Thai shore along the Andaman Sea from the northeast direction - Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The newspaper found that a slave can be bought for around US$250 in Thailand, while Reuters news agency put the price at between US$155 and US$1,550.
"I believe the actual number of people migrating through the route will exceed the estimate," said Teknaf's Katabuniya UP chairman Hamidur Rahman.
From 2011 to 2013, between 50,000 and 100,000 job seekers 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 250,000 Bangladeshis being trafficked over the last eight years is based on information given by victims and rights activists, and is therefore just a conservative estimate. And the calculation was done for the past eight years because we could only trace victims back that far.
Of the estimated victims, 10 to 15 per cent are Rohingya, according to Teknaf and Ukhia police.
Those who have been rescued cannot give any names, but say the trade is controlled by several organised rings.
Jewel Barua, 22, was 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.
'WOMEN-ONLY GROUP RAN THE SHOW'
In the jungle he was held, he saw a women-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, 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 e-mail late last year.
In January this year, Thai authorities confirmed more than a dozen state 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 fixed dates, they are walked to boats by brokers' assistants, who are usually local people.
Captains of most of these vessels are Thai nationals. Once taken to the 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 job seekers, who are shifted from one place to another for security reasons and to facilitate transfer 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 in 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 backup, in case a supply of migrants is caught by police.