KUTAPALONG CAMP, BANGLADESH - A spate of disappearances among the children of displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh is raising fears the children have been abducted into the region’s human trafficking networks.
In the past seven months, about 70,000 Rohingya have fled a military onslaught in their home country of Myanmar, and there are concerns the newly arrived status of the latest refugees makes them particularly vulnerable to abduction and exploitation.
Meanwhile the presence of unaccompanied minors, and the statelessness of the Rohingya refugees, could mean the problem is being significantly under-reported.
A talented child
When Rashida thinks of her 10-year-old son Muhammad, she thinks of his curiosity about the wider world.
“He used to read any kinds of paper, or paper cutting, he could get,” she says, eyes glistening. “He was a talented child, if a bit naughty.”
Rashida tells VOA that her husband was fatally shot during an offensive carried out by the Myanmar military during a lockdown of the country’s northern Rakhine state, home to the nation's Rohingya Muslim minority.
The lockdown followed an attack by Rohingya insurgents that killed nine policemen in October. Since then, there have been widespread accusations of mass rapes and murders as part of a broader campaign against Rohingya civilians — charges denied by the Myanmar government.
Like many others, Rashida fled and made her way to Kutapalong Camp, near the border with Myanmar in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district.
She sent her son off to study a nearby religious school while her 7-year-old daughter Hosneara remained with her in the camp.
A month ago, she got a call saying Muhammad had gone missing, having never returned to the school after a short trip to get food.
All efforts to find out what happened have so far failed. All Rashida has is a suitcase of his neatly folded clothes and a picture of him and his sister.
“My daughter is always crying, she says that she’ll never see her brother in the future,” Rashida tells VOA.
The disappearance of Mohammed is far from unique.
Attention is being called to the problem by Action Against Hunger, an NGO that has been helping Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar since well before the arrival of the latest refugees.
As many as 300,000 to 500,000 Rohingya are thought to now be living in Bangladesh. NGOs operating in the region and focused on Rohingya issues are often reticent to discuss their plight publicly because of political sensitivities. However, the child disappearances have prompted country director Nipin Gangadharan to speak out.
Gangadharan, whose NGO has created a series of "safe spaces" for youngsters, says his group has recorded the disappearance of 16 children since January.
He said most of those children came with the newly arrived Rohingya families, who face a “new context” and are cut loose from the community structures they had established in Myanmar.
”They don’t have any support … so they have some kind of set-up where they're leaving the children assuming it's safe and they're going to try to earn some living," he says. "Those kind of separations heighten the risk."
One humanitarian worker who did not want to be identified told VOA that that aid groups are aware of roughly 150 Rohingya children who had made the crossing into Bangladesh unaccompanied.
Little is known beyond the fact of the disappearances themselves — which have taken place both inside and outside the camps.
However, Gangadharan said human traffickers are known to have a strong network across the Cox’s Bazar region and to target both Bangladeshis and Rohingyas.
A report in 2014 on child abductions in Bangladesh revealed that of 49 children who had been recovered, the highest number — 15 — came from Cox’s Bazar. Last year, local media reported that trafficking syndicates in Cox’s Bazar involved around 2,000 people.
The traffickers are known to force children to work, beg or smuggle drugs, and have even harvested their organs. Gangadharan said the recently disappeared children "could be used as part of this network.”
A U.S. State Department report on trafficking released last year noted the vulnerability of the Rohingya in particular, and added that while the Bangladesh government does “not yet fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” it is “making significant efforts to do so.”
Questioned on human trafficking, Abuzar al-Jahid, captain of a Bangladeshi government-backed border guard team operating around the Myanmar border, said his team “would not allow those kind of activities,” adding it took a “zero tolerance approach.”
Gangadharan agreed that Bangladeshi authorities have been “positive and understanding” in response to the disappearances.
However, he emphasized that because of their lack of citizenship or relationship with the Bangladesh state, there is a chance such disappearances are going under-reported.
Word of the disappearances has spread.
Mohammed Idris — a teacher at a recently built religious school within Kutapalong who is also a father of seven — is fearful and has heard rumors of ransom demands.
“We’re very sad about losing these children,” he says.“We’re even hearing that they are taking the kidneys from some of the children.”
For Rashida, these fears have already been realized.
Now, all she can do is try to protect her daughter, continue to search, and look to her faith for consolation.
“I expect that I'll get him back if Allah wishes,” she says.