By Simon Lewis
SHAMLAPUR, Bangladesh (Reuters) - For tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, an informal fleet of small wooden fishing boats has meant deliverance from what they say is an indiscriminate assault on their villages by the Myanmar army.
Deliverance, however, comes at a price. Some refugees told Reuters they paid as much as 10,000 taka ($122) per adult to boatmen to make the five-hour crossing from Myanmar's coast to ports in southern Bangladesh.
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While the fishermen say they have a moral obligation to help desperate fellow Muslims escaping persecution, Bangladeshi officials accuse them of profiteering. Ordered to stamp out what they call human trafficking, they have made arrests and even set fire to fishing boats.
"Of course we want to keep going back to rescue more people. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are in a bad situation, so I have to go and bring them," said Mohammed Alom, 25, a fisherman in the Bangladeshi village of Shamlapur.
Around 400,000 Rohingya have arrived in Bangladesh in less than three weeks and people are still coming, by land as well as by sea, after attacks by Rohingya militants sparked a fierce counteroffensive by Myanmar's army. Senior United Nations officials have described the violence as "ethnic cleansing".
The influx is placing huge strain on authorities in southern Bangladesh, one of the poorest parts of a poor country.
"Don't say rescuers. The rescuers should be going and they should rescue people, not in terms of money," said Lieutenant Colonel Ariful Islam, Border Guards Bangladesh commander in Teknaf on the country's southern tip, referring to the fishermen bringing refugees ashore.
"These people are very poor, it's just extorting from them whatever they have. We are helping those who arrived, but we're trying to insist that no human trafficking should take place."
Reuters interviewed three Rohingya fishermen and two Bangladeshi boat owner-operators, all of whom had made at least two visits to Myanmar in recent weeks. The men didn't believe the profits they made detracted from what they saw as a rescue mission.
Shaif Ullah, 34, a Bangladeshi, who co-owns a fishing boat, said he made 100,000 taka ($1,220) rescuing the family of a Rohingya in Malaysia who paid him via BKash, a popular mobile money service, after he returned to Bangladeshi shores.
"People from Malaysia and Saudi Arabia call me and tell me to go there to get their family," he said. "They are crying for my help. I take money from them, yes, but it's also a humanitarian act."
Two refugees have told Reuters their family members were detained by fishermen or brokers in Bangladesh when they could not pay for the journey. Several also complained they had to hand over gold and other jewelry to boat operators.
"We had no chance to negotiate with the boatmen," said Ali Johar, 75, an elder from his village in southern Maungdaw, just across the Naf river that forms the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, now staying in Shamlapur.
He handed over his wife's gold necklace and a gold ring, in addition to 7,000 taka for the rescue of him and about 30 members of his extended family, including young children, he said.
"But we are grateful to the fishermen for bringing us here," he said. "There were so many people trying to get here. If they didn't bring us, we would be stuck."
Pronay Chakma says it was a "stroke of fate" that thrust him into a key role in Bangladesh's response to the crisis. The 31-year-old administrator arrived in Teknaf to start a new job as sub-district assistant commissioner for land on Aug. 23, two days before northwestern Myanmar exploded into violence.
"The thing is that, yes, the fishermen can go there, no problem, but if they demand money from the pain of stricken people, is it humanitarian? No," he said.
Chakma - a Buddhist member of the Chakma tribe who live scattered throughout South Asia - is an executive magistrate, which means he can hand down jail terms in simple criminal cases. He interrupted an interview with Reuters to sentence a man to three months for possession of five methamphetamine tablets.
Chakma and another local official have sentenced at least 100 people to terms of up to six months for continuing to charge Rohingya refugees for ferrying them to safety.
"Each and every time we are warning them," he said. "Yes, you can do that, but not in exchange of money."
He pointed to the deaths of women and children who, unable to swim, have died after their boats capsized near Bangladeshi shores.
Fishermen and local residents told Reuters that authorities have also broadcast messages in their villages by loudspeaker ordering them not to pick up Rohingyas. At least five boats caught bringing refugees in exchange for money have been set on fire on the beach by officials.
The boatmen Reuters spoke to said they were cautious about operating in bad weather and rejected allegations of coercion or detaining refugees.
Tens of thousands of people may still be waiting to cross the mouth of the Naf river, according to estimates by refugees, fishermen and rights groups.
"I would like to go back to bring these people, because Muslims are suffering," said Bangladeshi boat owner Moni Ullah, 38. "For me, it's hard to sit here and not go there, because I have seen so many people crying on the beach."
($1 = 81.9300 taka)
(Reporting by Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Nurul Islam; Editing by Alex Richardson)