DHAKA • In squalid camps in Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who have fled violence and persecution in neighbouring Myanmar dream of a better life abroad - and rely on increasingly high-tech trafficking networks to get them there.
Dhaka denies new arrivals refugee status and, after a major crackdown sealed off the ocean routes traditionally used to traffic migrants to South-east Asia, many Rohingya are turning to complex smuggling operations to escape Bangladesh.
"People are desperate to leave the camps," said community leader Mohammad Idris. "Those who have money or gold ornaments are paying smugglers to get them out by air, and those who don't are trying roads."
The Rohingya, who live mainly in Myanmar, are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
Many now live in grinding poverty in Bangladesh's south-east coastal district of Cox's Bazar, packed into camps that were home to more than 300,000 Rohingya even before some 70,000 new arrivals poured across the border after the Myanmar army launched a bloody crackdown last October. Bangladesh denies them the right to work, and is proposing to move them to a desolate island in the Bay of Bengal.
For years, rickety boats were the main mode of escape for the refugees, who would pay hefty amounts to smugglers to get them to Malaysia and Thailand.
Those routes were cut off in 2015 when mass graves of would-be migrants, many of them killed at sea, were discovered in Thailand, triggering a global outcry and a major crackdown on traffickers. But the smuggling networks swiftly identified new routes out of Bangladesh by air and road, using mobile payments to operate internationally.
Mr Mohammad, an undocumented 20-year-old Rohingya, said he spent 600,000 taka (S$10,400) to reach Saudi Arabia, where he now lives. "I paid a local friend for a Bangladeshi passport and other papers. He also helped me pass through immigration," he told AFP via WhatsApp.
As it becomes more difficult for migrants to leave Bangladesh, many have been forced to head to destinations once considered less appealing. Those who cannot afford flights are using buses and even travelling on foot to escape Bangladesh, going to India before moving on to Nepal or Pakistan. Some have even settled in the troubled Kashmir region.
There is no reliable data on the value of the trafficking trade, but estimates suggest it is worth millions of dollars in Bangladesh alone.
These networks arrange fake Bangladeshi passports and birth certificates for the Rohingya, a stateless ethnic minority denied citizenship rights in Myanmar even though they have lived in the Buddhist-majority nation for generations.
"It's unbelievable how deep the traffickers' grassroots network is and how smoothly they operate across nations," said Mr Shakirul Islam, head of a migrants' welfare organisation called Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program.
Migration expert Jalaluddin Sikder said a proliferation of mobile phone money transfer services in Bangladesh was making it easier for the traffickers to do business internationally. "Multinational trafficking rackets are now a phone call away," he said.
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite force fighting militancy and organised crime in Bangladesh, told AFP it was working to stop Rohingya from being smuggled out of the country.
"We've successfully tackled the boat migration. And now our focus is on other smuggling routes," said Mr Nurul Amin, RAB commander for Cox's Bazar. "But if someone is so desperate to migrate, can you stop him?"