Death, abuse and torture: traffickers hold fleeing Rohingya to ransom for up to £3000 a time

<span>An overloaded boat holding about 250 Rohingya refugees in Ulee Madon, Aceh province, Indonesia, 16 November 2023. </span><span>Photograph: Amanda Jufrian/AFP/Getty Images</span>
An overloaded boat holding about 250 Rohingya refugees in Ulee Madon, Aceh province, Indonesia, 16 November 2023. Photograph: Amanda Jufrian/AFP/Getty Images

Even as dehydration was getting to their passengers, the traffickers using boats to carry hundreds of Rohingya away from refugee camps in Bangladesh thrust phones into their hands and demanded they ask their relatives for money.

It was only after 28-year-old Rehana Begum’s relatives had paid almost £2,000 to the traffickers that they agreed to continue their journey, but a few days later, still onboard the boat, she fell unconscious and later died from dehydration.

Death, abuse and torture are common features of the boat journeys provided by a growing network of human traffickers. They offer an escape from deteriorating conditions in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya – a mostly Muslim ethnic minority – were forced to flee after being expelled from Myanmar.

Myanmar’s military expelled 700,000 Rohingya – a mostly muslim ethnic minority from the border state of Rakhine - from the country in 2017. It claimed this was in response to attacks by a fringe Rohingya rebel group. It involved documented cases of mass killings of civilians, rape and the wholesale destruction of Rohingya villages - since described by the US as genocide.

The Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh, swelling the population of the existing camps to a million and transforming them into the world’s largest refugee camps.

Bangladesh, which previously received Rohingya refugees in 1978 and the 1990s, has placed harsh restrictions on movement, work and education, in a policy aimed at ensuring the Rohingya do not settle in Bangladesh for the long term.

Increased desperation in the camp has caused disillusioned young Rohingya to be recruited by a growing number of armed groups, who often claim to be fighting for the Rohingya cause but are more often associated with criminality, including killing and kidnapping other Rohingya for ransom and drug smuggling.

Traffickers offer an escape route from desperate conditions in the camps, but often extort ransoms from their families en route. Hundreds are also dying in appalling conditions on journeys via land and sea.

Rohingya fear this trafficking marks the revival of a much larger network that trafficked tens of thousands of people until 2015, when it was closed down with the discovery of mass graves in Thailand.

The prospect of a safe return to Myanmar remains ever distant for the Rohingya, who were stripped of citizenship in 1982 based on their ethnicity, with still no assurances made for their safety by the Myanmar military, who are also facing a civil war.

Rohingya trafficking victims and their families have told the Guardian of being held at sea or in jungles until their families make payments of thousands of pounds, while many end up missing, imprisoned or die along the way.

Ransoms of up to £3,000 can be demanded by the traffickers once refugees have begun journeys from Bangladesh to south-east Asia, where they believe they can live and work more freely than in the confines of the camps.

Women, many of whom are being trafficked for marriage in Malaysia to Rohingya men, are vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of traffickers.

Malaysia, where more than 100,000 Rohingya are registered by the UN, was for years the preferred destination, but rising anti-Rohingya hostility has meant traffickers now take many to Indonesia.


The UN’s refugee agency revealed that at least 569 Rohingya died or went missing at sea last year trying to migrate mainly from Bangladesh – making the waters between the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea one of the world’s deadliest stretches.

A former broker in the camps – who was paid almost £300 for each person he could persuade to make the journey – says that ransoms taken while the victims were held in secret locations were a key part of the process, despite many having paid upfront or made agreements to pay once they had reached their destination.

Several Rohingya describe trafficking camps in Shamila, not far from the Bangladeshi border in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and Thailand, where they would be held until the ransoms were paid. An 18-year-old Rohingya man told the Guardian that in Thailand he witnessed traffickers beating others and slashing them with knives to demand payments from their families.

I don’t mind the risks. If only I had the money, I would get on a boat and leave

Aziz, a Rohingya man who arrived in Indonesia in November after 17 days at sea, says he witnessed a woman die from dehydration on an overcrowded boat that had 280 people on it. He said they performed a funeral prayer and then buried her at sea.

Bangladesh, which wants the Rohingya to return to Myanmar, has built fences around the camps. Most forms of education have been prohibited and the Rohingya are not allowed to work. Meanwhile, cuts to international humanitarian funding have made living conditions worse, with food rations cut from $12 (£9.46) to $10 (£7.88) a month.

A month ago, Shafique* was hospitalised for five days after a group of masked men stormed into his bamboo shelter after midnight, dragged him into the street and hit him with a hammer. “Since that night, my children don’t want me to leave our shelter any more,” he says, hunched over and kneading his hands.

Shafique has been unable to work since, losing what he earned as an informal labourer and having to rely on the meagre food rations provided to the refugees. “I don’t mind the risks,” he says. “If only I had the money, I would get on a boat and leave.”

Related: ‘Life is meaningless’: despair in Cox’s Bazar as chronic illness blights camps

Chris Lewa, the director of the Arakan Project, tracks boat journeys and has spoken to recently arrived refugees in Indonesia. She says several Rohingya told her that they had been kidnapped by armed groups from camps.

“The Rohingya are desperate, but there is still no solution for their situation,” Lewa says. “States in the region need to find a solution on how to protect the Rohingya better. We’ve been calling for this for years, and honestly I haven’t seen anything happen yet.”

Meanwhile, the trafficking network continues to operate and people still leave the camps, searching for a better life but vulnerable to profit-motivated traffickers. The former broker says their work grows because everyone profits, even Rohingya community leaders and camp authorities, who are paid to turn a blind eye.

“I stopped because it felt like I was selling my own people,” he says. “It has corrupted throughout the camp, so if someone tries to stop it they can’t do anything. Every day the traffickers are calling, asking for more people.”

* Name changed