Dhaka: Bangladeshi authorities have destroyed at least 20 boats that ferried Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar, accusing smugglers of using the huge exodus to bring methamphetamine into the country.
Refugees told Reuters that border guards also beat and arrested passengers and crew as they landed at Shah Porir Dwip, on the southern tip of Bangladesh on Tuesday night, before the vessels were smashed to pieces by locals.
The local commander of Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB), Lieutenant Colonel Ariful Islam, denied there were beatings, and said the action was a crackdown on human trafficking and the smuggling of methamphetamine, a drug known locally as “ya ba”.
“The boats are trying to carry passengers they are not supposed to,” he reportedly told Reuters.
He accused the organisers of the boat journeys of exploiting destitute Rohingyas by charging them for the short trip to Bangladesh. Some passengers told Reuters they had paid 10,000 Bangladeshi taka ($123) each for the trip, although others said they travelled free.
More than half a million Rohingya Muslims have arrived in Bangladesh from predominantly Buddhist Myanmar since its armed forces responded to attacks by militants on Aug. 25 with a counteroffensive described by United Nations officials as “ethnic cleansing”.
While four passengers told Reuters they saw no drugs on board, Lieutenant Colonel Islam said border guards had found a large quantity of the drugs in the water on Tuesday night.
“Maybe the carrier had dropped it before disembarking,” he said.
Earlier the Bangladeshi authorities said that they would crack down on fisherman charging Rohingya for ferrying them to safety, which they described as human trafficking.
Thousands of people continue to cross land and sea borders daily to reach Bangladesh, putting great strain on one of the poorest regions of a poor country.
One refugee, who asked not to be identified, said his relatives were among 6,000 people waiting in Myanmar to cross to Bangladesh by boat on Wednesday night.
Myanmar and Bangladesh are also discussing a framework for returning the Rohingyas to Myanmar.
The two countries agreed on Monday to work on a repatriation plan, and a Myanmar government spokesman confirmed it would go along with it, provided people could verify their status with paperwork.