MAUNGDAW, MYANMAR - It is a bright, hot day on the Naf river, which forms part of Myanmar’s western border with Bangladesh, an area where human smugglers pick up people on both sides of the border.
But in this section of the border region, security is tight. A barbed wire fence stretches almost the entire 63 kilometer length of the Naf, from the ocean to the interior.
Deputy Border Police Chief Myo Swe says since they began patrolling the waterways and coast two years ago, no human traffickers have been found here.
“Since there is fencing all along this border it’s impossible to leave from this point,” he said.
Further north, Myanmar’s borders with neighboring countries have much less security. And to the south, near the regional capital Sittwe, long stretches of coastline have many fewer patrols.
But here, on this fortified section of the border, authorities have built 27 concrete outposts to prevent smugglers from carrying their human cargo to sea.
Harsh conditions on ships
In the past month, the country’s navy has rescued more than 900 people from two different boats.
The first ship carried 208 men. Authorities say 200 were from Bangladesh. But officials did not give VOA access to the eight Rohingya on board.
At the detention center where they are being held while awaiting repatriation, the men from Bangladesh tell VOA of the harrowing conditions they faced at sea.
Mohammed says it was a real-life nightmare.
“My experience, on that fishing trawler is the worst, which I’ve never suffered like this my entire life. We were fed rice twice a day on board and we survived.”
He adds they were given only a little bit of fresh water and were beaten if they asked for more.
Many, from Bangladesh and Myanmar, take to the seas seeking work or escape from oppression. Others, like Ismail, say he went to the Bangladesh port of Cox’s Bazzar in search of local employment, but ended up traveling much further after he met a job broker who promised gainful employment if he loaded onto one of the infamous boats.
“When I get there, a broker trapped me into this mess. I did not intend to go to Malaysia,” he said.
With summer’s arrival in southeast Asia, sailing season for human smugglers is over. But when the weather turns in October and ocean conditions improve, there could be many more ships, packed with desperate Rohingya and Bengalis.