Rohingya refugees swallowed by Bangladesh drug trade


DHAKA: Rohingya Muslim refugee Ali Hasan is desperately looking for a bride for his 14-year-old son, jailed last year in Bangladesh for carrying the popular drug ya ba. He hopes the girl’s family would pay the $620 needed for Mohammed Hasan’s bail as dowry.

Police arrested Mohammed with 5,000 pills of ya ba, as methamphetamine is widely known in Asia, last June. His elder brother, Izzat Ali, was arrested a few months later with 200 pills and sent to prison.

Bangladesh says the influx of Rohingya fleeing Buddhist-majority Myanmar is partly to blame for soaring methamphetamine use in its cities. But many Rohingya say their young people are being pushed into crime because they cannot legally work or, in many cases, access aid.

Ali Hasan fled Myanmar three decades ago and his sons grew up in an unofficial camp in Leda, a 15-minute drive from the Naf river separating Bangladesh from Myanmar.

It is not uncommon for Rohingya families to arrange marriages while the couple are still in their mid-teens, and the 60-year-old does not think the fact Mohammed is in jail awaiting trial will be an issue, so common have such brushes with the law become among the refugees.

“We’re looking for a bride for him so that they can pay the dowry in advance,” he said. “People know that he was lured into it and he had no wrong intentions, so I don’t think getting a bride would be difficult.”

Rohingya Muslims have been fleeing apartheid-like conditions in northwestern Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship, since the early 1990s, and there are now more than 200,000 in Bangladesh. More than 70,000 have flooded across the border since October, escaping an army crackdown.


This month Reuters was taken to a tin shed by a canal in the Leda camp, where a 19-year-old youth wearing a blue T-shirt and longyi took orders for ya ba from two customers seated on a mat.

The youth, who fled to Bangladesh three years ago, said he buys 20-50 ya ba pills from a local villager every day after tasting one or two himself for quality.

Bangladesh consumes an average of 2 million such pills a day, estimated two officials at the Department of Narcotics Control (DNC) in Dhaka.

Each pill retails for around 300 taka ($3.75). The same pill can be bought for around 60 taka in Cox’s Bazar. Rohingya “mules” can earn 10,000 taka for transporting 5,000 pills to Dhaka and other urban centres, the officials said.

“Our data shows that majority of the carriers are Rohingya,” said police officer Tutul, but declined to share specific numbers.

A DNC mobile court has convicted 15 refugees in the past six months.

But the Rohingya mules are only a small cog in the ya ba supply chain.

From negligible ya ba sales a few years ago, Bangladesh has become a big market for traffickers who source the drug from factories in lawless northeastern Myanmar, according to Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

“Whatever has been coming is growing very, very fast,” he said. “But it’s much bigger in Myanmar. Internal demand there has been very carefully cultivated and developed by organised crime groups. They have been trafficking inside the country and they have been pushing the product fast, including towards Bangladesh.” ($1 = 79.7500 taka)