In the wake of the Asian boatpeople crisis, the Dhaka Tribune’s Abid Azad travels down the migration routes along Bangladesh’s jagged coast in search of answers. On the quayside alongside migrant smuggling boats he finds desperation and ambition in equal measure, and finds menacing eddies that portend far more trouble for the migrants than they bargained for. Beyond the horizon, in foreign waters, a vast network of human traffickers lies in wait. For Bangladeshis looking for a back door to a better life, a vast wide of greed and cruelty threatens to sweep away naive hopes and whole communities with it. This is the fourth part of the Dhaka Tribune’s multi-part investigative report on human trafficking in Bangladesh
For fortune-seekers, Teknaf is the place to be. Money is everywhere, and there are dozens of ways to get involved in the illegal trafficking trade, the mainstay of the local economy.
In the words of one government official: “There is no other place like Teknaf in the country. There are endless opportunities for earning money illegally. You cannot count the number of people who are involved in drug business and human trafficking here.”
Here one can change their life from rickshaw-puller or day labourer to an owner of a luxury building and huge lands within a very short time, the official added.
Even some who once went abroad as migrant labourers, have come back as it has become much easier to earn a huge amount of money in Teknaf than from abroad.
Young people in Teknaf call this land the second Singapore because of the luxurious lifestyle that can be had here.
No interest in school
The literacy rate in Teknaf upazila is only 27% which is one of the lowest in the country, said the Teknaf upazila primary education officer Subrata Kumar Dhar.
“There is plenty of opportunity for earning money illegally while people here have also greed for money and luxurious lifestyle. Thus they have low interest in education,” he suggested.
“Take a boy from a fishing family. He can earn money from that. However, if he gets involved in drug peddling, he can earn huge amounts of money. So, normally he is much more interested in earning money than in being educated,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.
However, here no one is raised as a teacher. On the other hand, teachers from other parts of the country do not want to stay here. Typically, it takes only three months for their transfer once they have been appointed here, the officer added.
According to the education office, there are almost 100 posts that are vacant for teachers out of a total of 367 posts in the area.
The local marriage market
In the rural areas of the district, parents keep their daughters at home with severe restrictions and get them married sometimes as early as 14.
Girls are not allowed to study after they become physically matured, which locals reckon to be between 12-15 years of age.
“We usually send our girls to school up to the age of 10 or 12. There is no need to be educated, what will they do? Rather, we keep them home to avoid any unwanted troubles and get them married when we find a suitable husband for them,” said Md Islam, an inhabitant at the Alir Deil area.
A programme decorator in Sabrang union Md Selim said: “Monthly we get anywhere from 15-25 decoration orders only for wedding ceremony. It goes even higher during the winter season.
“People here spend huge money on the wedding programme. The expenses become even higher if the wedding party includes a human trafficker or drug businessman. Average expense is between Tk10-20 lakh for a wedding ceremony. Sometimes it goes more.
“People used to spend big money only for the wedding gate and decoration purposes. It costs somewhere around Tk1-3 lakh, sometimes more. Several cows are always slaughtered during the ceremony.”
Signs of wealth
Although the lifestyle in other coastal areas of the country is very difficult, in Teknaf a luxurious lifestyle is very common.
Even it is seen that every battery-run auto-rickshaw has a music system inside the vehicle with smartphones or tabs.
An outsider will be amazed to see the ubiquity of colourful buildings and mosques here which is very unusual in any other part of the country.
It is not unusual to see youths under the age of 18 zipping around the Teknaf area on fancy motorbikes.
Many houses in the village area have boundary walls, which is unusual for Bangladesh.
Even a house made of bamboo and polythene has a boundary of coconut leaves around the house.
As a bamboo house is upgraded into a tin-shed building, the boundary will be also developed from bamboo or coconut leaves to tin, later to brick.
Sabrang union is such an area where almost all of the houses have a boundary wall, whether it is made of bamboo or bricks.
The boundary around the house is created in such a way that it is difficult for a passerby to see what is happening inside the boundary.
It is widely claimed by local inhabitants and law enforcement members that since these house are used as safe houses to keep trafficked people, the boundary is for maintaining secrecy.
But people in this area say the boundary walls are to ensure privacy and safety for the females of the household.
Interestingly, it is found that the people in this area are mostly related to each other, and still they need boundary around each of their houses which is very unusual in Bangladesh.
It is widely claimed by local inhabitants in Teknaf Sadar and law enforcement members that local people in Sabrang union are mostly involved in human trafficking, directly or indirectly.
It is difficult to say who has no involvement in trafficking.
Even shop-keepers keep a large amount of dry food and water containers which are typically used by the traffickers.
They concede that it would not be an exaggeration to say that in this way everyone is very much well aware about human trafficking in this area and also benefit from it too, if indirectly.
Another interesting fact is that there are dozens of houses in Sabrang union which have transformed from tin huts to luxury brick and concrete structures in the past few years.
As the trafficking business has now dried up due to both national and worldwide concern, it is seen that construction work on several incomplete houses has been stopped and the owners now are in hiding.
Cost of living
The cost of daily food products, clothes and necessities is very high in Teknaf. The price of beef is higher than the price in Dhaka. The price of chickens is also high.
Although, people get fish from both the nearby Naf River and the sea, the price of fish is also high.
According to the Teknaf upazila agriculture officer Abdul Latif: “This has happened because of large flow of illegal money. People who have illegal money, they do not care about the market price. We the general people cannot even think to buy a sea fish from this market. If you go to the fish market, you will find illegal businessmen will buy that fish at a high price.”
The gold market
There is a large gold market in this little Teknaf pourasabha area. Hundreds of goldsmith shops can be found in this area, with each shop having multiple smiths working there.
The shops are crowded with buyers, mostly women, every evening.
Interestingly, not a single shop-owner would agree to talk to this reporter about their business.
How is such luxury possible?
Betel leaf cultivator Md Zubair, who continued this cultivation from his father, told the Dhaka Tribune: “It is not possible in any way to build a luxurious house or to lead a luxurious lifestyle only from betel leaf or supari (areca nut) or salt cultivation in this area without having any illegal business.”
This observation was echoed by several such farmers during a weekly betel leaf haat day at the Noapara Bazar under Sabrang union.
A bricklayer told the Dhaka Tribune: “I got chance for construction work in some of the luxurious building in both Teknaf Sadar area and village area. There is no shortage of luxury construction work. Owners are willing to spend a huge amount of money.”
Local people said it was in the last three to five years by which human trafficking boomed in this area.
During this time, those involved have gained a lucrative opportunity to become rich within a short time, they added.
Drug smuggling is another lucrative source of income for the criminals.
Teknaf upazila primary education officer Subrata Kumar Dhar said: “Many school and college going young boys are now involved in drug peddling. They can earn thousands every day. Not only they but also other poor people or daily labourers also can earn a lot of money in drug dealing. So they do not need to think at all about earning money legally.”
Source: Dhaka Tribune