Unlike fishing boats elsewhere, the small, graceful wooden vessels that are grounded all day on the sandy beach at Sonarpara, 400 kilometers (250 miles) southeast of Dhaka, are heavy with cargo when they set out to sea at night and empty when they return to shore. Yet they still make a profit, for their business is not fishing but human trafficking. For tens of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers, the boats are the first leg of a desperate journey from Bangladesh to Malaysia and beyond.
According to survivors and family members we interviewed on a recent Human Rights Watch visit to the area, those boarding the boats are almost equally divided between poverty-stricken Bengalis and even more destitute Rohingya. Whereas the former arrive from all corners of Bangladesh as economic migrants, the stateless Rohingya are fleeing ethnic violence and discrimination. For many Rohingya, the journey started on the other side of the border in neighboring Myanmar (also known as Burma).
The Rohingya have long been despised and persecuted in Myanmar, where the government effectively denies them citizenship and the rights that come with it, excludes them from the census, and even rejects any reference to the word Rohingya. At the same time, the authorities have failed to address, if not actively promoted, Buddhist extremist violence against the predominantly Muslim minority group.
In Bangladesh, the Rohingya are barely tolerated; only 32,800 of an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 who entered the country in the early 1990s are recognized as refugees and afforded minimal protection in two refugee camps administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The rest have no opportunity to lodge refugee claims in Bangladesh. It is little wonder then that so many are choosing to risk their lives in the hope of a better future elsewhere.
Yet several of the survivors we interviewed gave harrowing accounts of how what began as a risky but voluntary migration became a coerced human trafficking operation. Migrants are often held for huge ransoms and physically abused until
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