Hanoi, Vietnam - Tha Rae, a small town whose name means “butcher village”, is located in the northeast Thai province of Sakhon Nakhon and it’s a hub for the region’s multi-million dollar illegal dog trafficking industry.
About 150km of Laos separates the province from central Vietnam, from where the animals make their way up to Hanoi to fetch as much as $10 per kilogram of dog meat - two to three times as much as pork.
Dog meat is illegal in Thailand. It is not illegal in Vietnam, but the importation of dogs for consumption from abroad is. Defying the law, at least 10,000 - and by some estimates as many as 30,000 - dogs are smuggled from Thailand through Laos to Vietnam each month to feed a popular industry, an activist with Soi Dog Foundation, a non-profit based in Thailand, who didn’t want his name published.
The activist runs a network of undercover agents across Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam who try to intercept dog smugglers in a game of cross-border cat-and-mouse. In the past week he and his men have stopped two pickup trucks from crossing the border through a new route in Bueng Kan province. One had 117 mutts.
“The other had 163 in the back of one pickup, which takes some believing,” says Soi Dog Foundation founder John Dalley. “But we’ve got the pictures.”
A Soi Dog Foundation activist says the traffickers make $10-$30 per dog in Thailand, an amount that rises above $250 in Vietnam - good money in one of the poorest parts of the region, especially considering they get most of the animals for free by corralling strays from the streets.
Mongrels are packed into wire cages and stacked on top of each other in the back of pickup trucks - 10-15 per cage, 70-100 per truck, crammed as tightly as possible with limbs sticking out for a 2-3 day journey with no food or water. Several die from dehydration or suffocation in the course of the trip, activists say.
As witnessed by blogger Austin Bush, before a recent crackdown in Thailand up to 1,000 dogs would be shoveled into a large truck, flooding the road with the dank stench of “fur and excrement coupled with the endless sound of howling and fighting”.
“There is a belief that causing pain increases adrenaline which tenderises the meat. So you have dogs that have their legs broken right before they’re killed, dogs that are boiled alive, dogs are killed in front of other dogs.”
- John Dalley, Soi Dog Foundation founder
From the moment they’re seized until they’re killed, the way the animals are treated is brutal.
“They’ll be force-fed with pipes shoved down their throats, since they are sold by bodyweight,” says Dalley. “Dogs will be burnt with blowtorches to get rid of their hair.
“There is a belief that causing pain increases adrenaline which tenderises the meat. So you have dogs that have their legs broken right before they’re killed, dogs that are boiled alive, dogs are killed in front of other dogs.”
In Hanoi’s Cau Giay district, Dan Thi Ngan cuts slivers of meat with a large butcher’s knife. Even without understanding the sign labeled “Thit cho” above her shop, it is easy to ascertain what dish she sells. The storefront displays the grilled torsos of several medium-sized dogs.
Ngan and her family have been running this stall for 10 years, and they share the road with four other dog-meat vendors. At the restaurant next door, a group of mostly men are having a late Saturday lunch: a plate of dog and a round of beers.
“We eat dog meat at the end of the month, or when we have bad luck, and because it’s tasty,” said one of the diners.
While there are towns in north and northeast Thailand that are fond of dog meat, it is demand from north Vietnam that drives much of the illicit trafficking.
“There’s not enough supply to match demand in Vietnam, especially in the north,” says Tuan Bendixsen of the Animals Asia Foundation in Hanoi.
Over the past couple of years, however, even northeast Thailand’s strays have not been enough, leading smugglers to increasingly look towards a new source - people’s pets.
“It’s very common to have dogs stolen in Hanoi, even if you let the dog go out on its own for just a few minutes,” says Tuan. He describes the experience of his in-laws who live nearby. “One day they opened the front door, the dog went out and in 10 seconds it was gone.”
Tho, a lifetime Hanoi resident, lost her dog last September and suspects it was kidnapped for the dog-meat trade. “We were having our gate repaired at the time, and so he wandered outside. He liked to play with other dogs.” Her family never saw their pet again.
Tuan says there have been situations where community members have formed groups to stop pet thieves when they hear that one is in the neighbourhood. “Thieves sometimes get beaten up or killed by the owners,” he says.
“We’d love to change people’s minds about how to treat dogs, but in the near future we need to work on the health issue.”
- Tuan Bendixsen, Animals Asia Foundation in Hanoi
The kidnapping phenomenon has spread to Thailand, with Dalley reporting that pets are now being stolen from the country’s south.
Change of strategy
“They are smuggling pets because strays are becoming scarce, especially in Nakhon Phanom and Sakon Nakhon,” says Phumphat Phacharasap, a former member of parliament and one of the few politicians to take on the powerful industry.
“I’ve had my life threatened,” he says. “There’s definitely a lot of corruption involved. It is very influential as a lot of the smuggling happens in areas where people are poor. Authorities are often paid to keep quiet. Even the police are paid off.”
Local authorities also mostly don’t care; from their perspective, the strays are a nuisance anyway. And in Vietnam, consumption of dog meat is a part of the culture, and many feel it is hypocritical to accept the slaughter of chickens and cows for food, but draw the line at mutts.
“Culturally, politically, there is no answer for stopping dog meat now,” says Tuan. “In the 1940s and ’50s, during times of famine, people ate dogs to survive. People believe that dogs are rich in protein, and people like the taste.”
Tuan says national governments aren’t eager to take responsibility for the issue. An alliance of animal welfare organisations in the region is trying a different tack - getting the Thai, Laos, and Vietnamese governments to crack down on the trade for the dangers it poses to human health.
They are pushing the countries to meet and develop a plan of action to address dog trafficking.
According to Lola Webber of the Singapore-based Change for Animals Foundation, dog meat consumers are at high risk of contracting rabies and cholera, as well as trichinosis. From a sample of 76 dog brains collected from slaughterhouses in south and highland provinces of Vietnam, Webber says 16.4 percent were infected with rabies.
“Realistically we have to look at this,” says Tuan. “We’d love to change people’s minds about how to treat dogs, but in the near future we need to work on the health issue.”
Dalley agrees. “We’ve got pictures that no newspapers would publish because they are so grotesque,” he says. “But the cruelty is not going to convince any government to do anything.”
Shamsul Alam has dabbled as a tailor’s assistant and construction worker since fleeing to Malaysia from his native Rakhine State in Myanmar.
He recalls bitterly his gruelling 12-14 hour work days on construction sites before grabbing a quick meal and dashing off to the highlands in the hopes of evading the authorities.
But when he speaks about his intentions to marry, the 30-some year old Rohingya becomes much more poetic: “If a man wants to live, he must have a woman…People need companions to live on this earth.”
However, his dream to marry has been difficult. As young Rohingya men like Alam have settled into life in Malaysia, to which a steady trickle of Rohingya refugees has been fleeing, they’ve been presented with a unique twist on a common dilemma: where to find a suitable bride.
Their perceived low social status has made it particularly difficult to secure brides.
“There’s a big gap socially between a Rohingya man and a Malay woman,” says Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy organisation for the Rohingya community. “The father of a Malay woman would not want to give his daughter to a stateless groom.”
As a result, the demand for brides is creating a new phenomenon: the Rohingya version of the mail-order bride.
Sending back for a bride
The stateless Rohingya, described by the UN Refugee Agency as the most persecuted minority in the world, face restrictions in their native Myanmar on where they can travel, who they can marry, and how many children they can have.
Of the 30,000 refugees who have fled ethnic violence in their home state for Malaysia, the majority of those braving the treacherous boat journey have been young, single men.
“In the past many Rohingya men in Malaysia married undocumented Indonesian or Burmese Muslim women,” Lewa says. “But from 2009 it became more common to send a Rohingya bride from their village by air.”
Activists and refuges estimate that hundreds of Rohingya brides have been sent over since 2009, with 67 making the trip last year.
“In our camp there has been many men who went over [to Malaysia] who have since been in touch to say ‘hey, send me a woman to marry’,” says Deen Mohammed, a refugee living in Leda camp in Cox’s Bazaar in southeast Bangladesh.
So-called brokers and family members back in Myanmar and the refugee camps in Bangladesh look out for potential female mates. Once the right woman is found, several deals are struck.
The suitor - or often his parents - then come to an agreement with the bride-to-be’s parents, which can involve monthly payments or a lump-sum figure. The girl herself is rarely consulted.
Arrangements must then be made with the brokers - who then arrange the fake passports, tickets, and other documentation for the girl and her companion who often pose as her husband to get her through the scrutiny of immigration officials.
From sea to the sky
One factor spurring the growth of the number of brides being flown over is the change in Thailand’s attitude towards refugee boats.
Having previously turned a blind eye, In 2009, Thailand - a key passage for onward travel to Malaysia - began to push refugee boats back to sea, leaving their passengers vulnerable to risks of dehydration and death. This shift coincided with a boom in low-cost air travel in Asia, with airlines like AirAsia adding hundreds of routes in 2008.
Parents unwilling to risk their daughter’s lives by sending them on a small boat seem to be more receptive to the notion of dispatching them by air, opening the door for lonely men like Alam to spend his savings on a bride, a broker, and their plane tickets.
Somewhat ironically, the cost of bringing a bride to Malaysia by boat is now more expensive than by air, according to Deen Mohammed.
“For the boat, the brokers charge more for the women than they do for the men, about $2,280”, he says. “The plane ticket costs about $1,500, getting a fake passport and other documents costs about $250.”
He explained, however, that many refugees don’t have the luxury of choice.
“Many of the refugees aren’t able to make the arrangements to go by plane…Not everyone is able to get a passport and other documents.”
Syed Karim, a refugee in Bangladesh who is preparing to send his daughter by boat to get married in Malaysia, is realistic about the situation.
“I just know that I’m supposed send the money I get [from the groom] to a specific place, and then someone will come take her. I don’t know who he is, but I know his name,” Karim says.
“Of course I’m scared about what might happen to her. She’s a single girl by herself, she’s 21 years old. She’s worried about how she is going to reach her fiancé.”
Such trips can end in tragedy. Just a few days earlier, two Rohingya brides en route to Malaysia by boat from Cox’s Bazaar drowned in choppy waters, Mohammed says.
But uncertainty is a hallmark not just of the travel, but also of the life after it.
Mohammed recounted the story of a girl who went to marry a man in Malaysia who it turned out already had a wife and two children. The marriage was called off and the girl was stranded.
“For a month her parents heard nothing from her at all, had no idea how she was surviving, until finally she was able to call them to let them know that she had managed to find another husband.”
Lewa also voices fears about the future of the girls, many of whom she says are underage.
“The women are there at the mercy of their husband. It’s hard to talk to them - the husband is afraid to allow her out because he is afraid she could be arrested.
“NGOs have raised concerns about high levels of domestic violence in the Rohingya community. At least in a village in Burma you have relatives or village elders to turn to,” Lewa says. “Stateless young brides in an alien country are particularly vulnerable to abuses by state authorities and locals, but also by their own refugee community.”
Yupa Prai-ngam’s body lay slumped on her bus seat like a dozing passenger. Around her, forensic police cased the scene, zipping up the corpse of her fellow victim, 21-year-old art student Wanchai Thongsaengkaew, and dragged him away.
Yupa, 48, was returning home to Bangkok’s suburbs, when at about 6:20 pm a group of students ambushed the vehicle at a bus stop and opened fire. Police believe the attack was the result of a feud between rival student gangs; in the end, the incident claimed the lives of two innocent passengers.
According to Manit Wongsomboon, deputy commissioner of the city police, there were 1,222 cases of student violence reported in Bangkok and its suburbs in 2012 - a rate of about 100 cases per month. He estimates about 20 of these resulted in death or severe injury.
Most of the clashes take place between students at vocational colleges - academies that train pupils to become machinists, electricians, and other specific trades - who carry on a longstanding tradition of fighting adversaries from rival schools to preserve institutional pride.
But increasingly the fighting is spilling over into society at large. Last month, an altercation between more than 50 vocational students at a charity concert led to rioting and reports of gunshots. The event was shut down early as more than 700 police officers struggled to restore calm.
The problem, both the police and the army warn, is getting worse.
“Before, the violence would happen more randomly. Now it is more organised. The gangs are starting to use social networks to set up places to gather, like at the charity concert,” said army spokesman Wanchana Sawasdee.
“All this has an effect on other people, who now almost schedule their lives around the violence. They think, ‘I live near this school, so I’ll take detours to not be at the wrong place at the wrong time’.”
The escalation of hostilities is having a bigger impact on students who say they are reluctant to fight. “These days, when you find weapons on students, mostly they’re carrying it for self-defence,” explained Sawasdee.
Weapons used in students’ fights include knives, machetes, and even guns [Bangkok Metropolitan Police Bureau]
One student named Pon, who like all the students interviewed for this article asked to be identified only by his nickname, told Al Jazeera that he been “involved in some violence, but I’ve never been the instigator.
“I’ve been stabbed before,” he added.
“I commute with a pretty big group of friends from my school by bus. Often we run into kids from our rival school and a fight would ensue. It usually starts with some hateful words being thrown around and would eventually escalate into a brawl. There are always weapons or tools involved, sometimes even a gun,” Pon said.
Deputy Commissioner Manit spread out a number of casefiles from 2012, pointing out pictures of weapons confiscated from vocational students, whose education often revolves around the use of dangerous tools. The photos reveal guns, knives, machetes, hammers, hooked rods, and even homemade swords.
“Once, the police were called in by someone who spotted a big group of students ready for trouble. We searched them and found a modified pistol that shoots shotgun shells,” said Manit.
‘Almost like a war’
When asked about the cause of the clashes, most point to the historical enmity between vocational schools. “It is mainly about long rivalries between the schools,” said Pon. “It is something that is passed down to us, what we are told to do to show our loyalty.”
Wanchana and Manit said disreputable seniors and alumni, who have built up formidable reputations, pressure freshmen to emulate their actions.
‘’There’s basically a form of hazing to initiate new students, creating a culture of respecting elder students in a sort of fraternity of violence,” Manit explained. “Some of these schools have had rivalries for longer than I have been in the police force.”
“Students feel they have to fight to gain the respect of their peers or of the other schools, and it quickly becomes a cycle of revenge. They will take revenge on any student from the school that has wronged them - it doesn’t have to be the actual instigator. It’s almost like a war.”
Scrambling to find solutions, the army has set up a 10-week boot-camp-style training course. Administrators from the vocational schools select problem students and dispatch them to the camp, sometimes threatening to keep them from graduating if they do not participate.
The camp instills discipline, said Wanchana. Students are made to wake up, cook meals, and meditate together. Most of the activities are collaborative, not competitive, aiming to get the kids to see their rivals in a friendlier light.
“One mother was so overwhelmed by the changes she saw after her child’s training, she cried, saying she was able to have a meal with her entire family for the first time in years,” Wanchana noted.
Wanchana divides the 157 children who have passed through the camp into three groups: those who are unchanged, those who change completely, and those who fall somewhere in the middle. “This middle group, next time they’re in a bad situation, maybe they will hesitate. This hesitation is a very important turning point.”
Deer, another vocational student who has successfully completed the training, said he no longer goes looking for trouble. However, he noted that his troubles are not yet over. “I have to constantly be in survival mode. I have not been a part of any violence since [the camps], but if I happen to end up at the wrong place at the wrong time, I will defend myself,” he said.
The root of the problem
“Traditional schools have similar problems, but in the media they are glorified. Some of the more prestigious schools can cover up what goes on there better than we can.”
- Gor, freshman student
Wanchana recognises that the camp can only have a limited impact. “With this camp we are not addressing the root of the problem. We are only addressing the tail-end of the problem,” he said.
Institutional pride ismerely an excuse, according to Montri Sintawichai, founder of the Child Protection Foundation. Behind it lie the complex forces of teenage angst and the shortcomings of Thailand’s social fabric.
“A Japanese artist said: ‘Thailand is known as the land of smiles, and yes, the Thais do smile easily. But if you look into their eyes, they are sad,” he said.
‘’These children see, on a regular basis, kids with powerful parents toss their fathers’ names around and get out of trouble. Kids learn that if they are the bully when they leave school, they will have more authority.”
Gor - a freshman at the Uthen Thawai campus of Rajamangala University of Technology, one of the capital’s most notorious trade schools - believes that vocational students, most of whom come from poor families, are stigmatised by the media.
“Most of the fighting is not because of institutional pride, it’s just normal teen angst. We feel the traditional schools have similar problems, but in the media they are glorified. Some of the more prestigious schools can cover up what goes on there better than we can,” Gor said.
Montri recommended that Thailand - where about 10 million guns are owned by civilians, most of them unregistered - needs to accept responsibility for the examples it is setting for these children.
“In Thailand, violence is everywhere: children see it in the streets every day. Not only do we need to make it harder for kids to access weapons, but also for adults. Kids think, ‘Oh, mom and dad carry guns and it makes people respect them, so I should too’.”
Perhaps one of the more bizarre scams in Bangkok involves gem hustlers telling tourists that the whole of Chinatown is shut down, in hopes that the more gullible travellers will visit a great little store they know of instead.
But this outlandish claim – that the lively, sprawling commercial and residential neighbourhood might be closed for the day – might not be far off. With the Bangkok subway extending into the heart of Chinatown in the next few years, with some work already underway, developers are keenly eyeing the area’s prime real estate. Already a few battle lines have been drawn between residents defending their historic trading spots and the developers who have turned much of the Thai capital into a never-ending line up of shopping malls.
If the alleys around Yaowarat and Charoen Krung roads – the main arteries of Chinatown – share the same fate as the rest of the city, it would be a great shame. For those who complain that Bangkok has lost its exotic flavour, Chinatown is the answer. While the rice fields of Sukhumvit – one of the longest roads in Bangkok and in the world – have been replaced by skyscrapers, luxury malls and entertainment plazas, Chinatown has cleaved stubbornly to its history and its identity, making it the most fascinating part of town to explore.
The first Chinese traders arrived in Thailand in the 16th Century, when the kingdom’s capital was still in the city of Ayutthaya, about 80km north of Bangkok. Famine and persecution of Teo Chew Chinese from the Chaozhou area in present-day China led to several waves of arrivals, who settled near the Chao Phraya River, which today slices through the west of the city. When the capital eventually shifted to Bangkok and the Grand Palace was built in 1782, the Chinese were requested to move outside the city walls. From this vantage point, they established what became the country’s commercial heart for the next two centuries.
Bangkok’s commerce and shopping centres have now shifted to the neighbourhoods of Siam, Sathorn and Sukhumvit, yet Chinatown remains a vibrant hub that still largely reflects what life was like in the 1960s, ‘50s and even the ‘20s.
Most of the wares being sold – car parts, cheap electronics, low-quality plastic toys from China – are not necessarily of interest to travellers. But unlike much of Bangkok, which is fully geared toward serving the needs of the city’s burgeoning tourist and expat population, Chinatown’s charm lies in the fact that, over here, it is not really about the traveller; Chinatown exists first and foremost for the Thai-Chinese.
The community rewards those who meander and observe. The pleasure of Chinatown is in taking a wrong turn and getting lost, ending up somewhere strange and unexpected.
Life goes on in Chinatown the way it has for decades. Bangkok’s oldest cinema, Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre was built in 1933 and still shows Thai movies on special occasions, although now it mostly stages dances and plays. Tang To Kang, the capital’s oldest gold shop, andChao Krom Pho, the city’s oldest Chinese medicine store, are still doing business the way they did more than a century ago. Nearby Wat Chakrawat is known as the Crocodile Wat for good reason – the monks at this temple have been raising the reptiles for more than 200 years.
Aside from these landmarks, the area is also home to some of the city’s best food, with delicious scents from an unassuming curry stall mingling with the smells from the neighbouring Indian district, causing passers-by to perform double takes.
Shrines for the ancestor-worshipping Chinese pop up in unexpected corners – havens of reflective peace in the middle of chaotic streets. A favourite is located in the 100-year-old – and inappropriately named –Talat Mai (New Market). Smack in the middle of the cramped, packed stores hawking shark’s fins, bird’s nests, fossils, precious stones and sea slugs, a small gateway leads to the courtyard of the Leng Buai Ia shrine, where the noise of the outside bustle immediately falls away.
The streets and alleys of Chinatown are lined with Art Deco buildings from the ‘20s and the ‘30s – seven to nine storey constructions that were once Bangkok’s skyscrapers. The buildings have changed so little that during the 1998 to 2000production of the film In the Mood for Love, set in 1960s Hong Kong, director Wong Kar Wai decided to shoot the movie’s richly atmospheric night-time shots in Bangkok instead.
It is at night that walking around Chinatown can really feel like travelling through time. While a large number of patrons still frequent the famed restaurants on Soi Texas (located a few hundred metres into Yaowarat Road), the crowds start to fade and eventually disappear the further you get from the main thoroughfares.
Roads like Sampeng Lane (also known as Soi Wanit 1), where Bangkok’s entire Chinese population once lived, are bathed in the glow of warm oranges and reds from streetlights and Chinese lanterns. The streets get narrower until their names get downgraded from soi (street) to trok(alley), where the canopies from the buildings on one side almost touch the windows on the other.
At night, walking around the sharp turns of the alleys can feel thrillingly forbidding. As in the day, the best plan is to walk around without a plan, stumbling across fantastically decorated schools and deserted shrines.
The houses in Chinatown look their age, but sceptics of the claims that this is some of Bangkok’s priciest real estate would do well to notice the subtly placed security cameras. Many of the neighbourhood’s storeowners and homeowners have lavish houses on the outskirts of Bangkok, but have maintained the neighbourhood that they associate so closely with their ancestors. It is this determination that may well save Chinatown.
COX’S BAZAR, 18 December 2012 (IRIN) - Activists warn food insecurity in southeastern Bangladesh may worsen over the next decade as a result of unfettered deforestation.
Abdul Mannan of local NGO Society for Health Extension & Development works with communities in Cox’s Bazar District where, by the group’s estimate, some 400,000 depend on the forest to survive.
“The southeastern sub-districts of Ukhia and Teknaf are, in comparison, far poorer than other parts of the country,” he told IRIN. “And the people here have no alternative income sources to the forest.”
Mannan’s organization provides loans and training to encourage people to find new income sources, such as poultry farming or cattle rearing. But he said his group is able to reach less than 10 percent of the affected communities.
By his organization’s tally, among the most affected by deforestation are some 100,000 Bangladeshis who rank among the country’s poorest, about 2,000 indigenous hill tribe people, and close to 300,000 ethnic Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar.
Burmese law considers the Rohingya - officially referred to as Muslims - stateless, while Bangladesh views all but some 30,000 as illegal migrants.
“From this 10,000 hectare forest, people manage to extract as much as US$20 million income a year. But the extraction rate is far too high, and the population pressure is too great now,” said Mannan.
“It is not enough income, and it is disappearing fast. I have asked local woodcutters [loggers] how much they would have to walk to work in the past, and it was about 1-2km. Now it is 9-10km. So looking 10 years down the line, they will have to walk 20km, 30km to find wood. If things continue to go this way, then these people’s livelihoods will disappear.”
The $20 million figure sounds lucrative, but is still not enough to support the numbers depending on that cash, said Fariduddin Ahmed, the executive director of Arannayk Foundation, a conservation group based in the capital, Dhaka.
In 2010, the country had an estimated 1,442,000 hectares of forest, 52,000 hectares less than two decades earlier. While official data for forests in the country’s southeast are unavailable, NGOs and residents say forest loss here has been more dramatic.
Both Ahmed and local Rohingya estimate loggers earn less than $2 a day, which they use to feed often sizeable families. While population control has been successful in much of Bangladesh, the southeast remains an exception, said Ahmed.
“In the southeast part of Bangladesh you will see an interesting situation - here the local and tribal people have many children… And these people, to feed their families, most of them have no option but to go to the forest, cut the wood, and sell it,” said Ahmed.
“The Rohingya migration is a big part of the pressure - the more people come, the greater the pressure on the forest. They have no source of work, so they all go to the jungle and cut the wood, all the while hiding and trying not to get caught,” he added.
Timber, used for cooking, is sold in local markets, but Rohingya often resort to black markets or selling through intermediaries.
Abdul Gohor, a Rohingya who has been in Bangladesh for over 20 years, said resentment is on the rise. “They [locals] say we are being fed by the UN, why should we use up their resources?”
Rohingya refugees in two government camps receive food rations from the World Food Programme.
In 2012 the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated 12.6 percent of under-five children in two government camps for Rohingya refugees are afflicted b wasting (too low weight for height), of whom almost 1 percent are severely malnourished. Some six out of 10 children in the camps are stunted (too short for their age) - a sign of too few nutrients and a harbinger of brain damage, development delays and a broken immune system that no longer fights off fatal infections.
It is even worse in makeshift unofficial refugee sites in Kutupalong, one of two official government camps, where international media has reported an acute malnutrition rate of up to 27 percent. “Everyone here cuts wood to live,” said Abu Jamal, a Rohingya refugee living in Leda camp, a makeshift gathering on the outskirts of the official Nayapara refugee camp. “Many times you can’t finish the job because Bengalis will come and beat us and take our wood away.”
COX’S BAZAR, 17 December 2012 (IRIN) - Some 40,000 undocumented Rohingya refugees are being adversely affected by a government ban four months ago on NGOs working at two makeshift sites in southeastern Bangladesh.
In August, Bangladeshi authorities ordered three NGOs - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Action Against Hunger and Muslim Aid UK – to stop the formal delivery of humanitarian services, including health care and nutrition assistance to undocumented Rohingya refugees, saying such services would encourage more to flee to Bangladesh.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are more than 200,000 Rohingyas in Bangladesh, of whom only 30,000 are documented and living in two government camps assisted by the agency.
Some 12,000 documented refugees live at the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar District, with another nearly 18,000 further south at Nayapara - both within 2km of Myanmar. The 40,000 undocumented refugees live on the periphery of the two official camps.
Documented refugees are provided food rations by the World Food Programme (WFP), along with shelter assistance, non-food items, water/sanitation services, vocational training and supplementary feeding for malnourished refugees by UNHCR.
However, most Rohingya - a mainly Muslim ethnic group who fled persecution en masse to Bangladesh from Myanmar’s neighbouring Rakhine State years earlier - are undocumented.
UNHCR has not been permitted to register newly arriving Rohingya since mid-1992.
Only those who are documented receive regular assistance, while those who are undocumented are largely dependent on a handful of international NGOs who until recently were allowed to work in the area.
Poor living conditions
Prior to the government ban, conditions in the makeshift camps were described by Physicians for Human Rights as “among the worst they had ever seen”.
Most people outside the Kutupalong camp are housed in ramshackle huts made of twigs and plastic sheeting, denied food aid, and live beside open sewers, the Boston-based group says.
In its most recent survey, MSF found that global acute malnutrition, one of the basic indicators for assessing the severity of a humanitarian crisis, was as high as 27 percent at the Kutupalong makeshift camp, where an estimated 20,000 unregistered refugees live - almost double the emergency threshold of 15 percent set by the World Health Organization, as reported in international media.
No further surveys have been made since the ban took effect.
In June, the Bangladeshi authorities effectively closed the door to Rohingya fleeing communal violence in Rakhine State in June and October which left dozens dead and thousands of homes destroyed.
“We are not interested in more people coming to Bangladesh,” Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told reporters at the time, noting that Bangladesh was already a densely populated country and could not afford a fresh influx.
Government figures suggest 200,000-500,000 undocumented Rohingya live in villages and towns outside the camps, many of them in Cox’s Bazar, Bandarban and Chittagong.
UNHCR has repeatedly called on Dhaka to lift the ban, but more than four months on it remains in place, leaving aid workers reluctant to comment on the record.
“The situation here is very bad, it’s horrific,” Shahina Akter, a local nutrition volunteer who asked that her organization not be identified, citing issues of severe malnutrition.
“Because of the ban, it’s harder for us to help the Rohingya,” another aid worker who asked not to be identified, confirmed.
BANGKOK, 6 November 2012 (IRIN) - Thousands of Rohingya - whether currently in Myanmar or Bangladesh - may take to the high seas and head to Malaysia after last month’s deadly sectarian violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, activists warn.
“The risk factor is certainly there,” Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy organization for the Rohingya, told IRIN. “Many simply feel they have no other choice. Bangladesh has closed its borders so there is no other escape.”
“More people are getting on boats to get to Malaysia,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said. “This year might be one of the largest sailing seasons [of Rohingya refugees going to Malaysia from the two countries].”
Close to 110,000 mostly Rohingya residents are displaced in Myanmar following inter-communal violence between Muslim Rohingya and ethnic (mainly Buddhist) Rakhine residents, and need humanitarian assistance, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on 5 November.
On 21 October, more than 35,000 people were displaced across eight Rakhine townships (Kyaukpyu, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Pauktaw, Ramree and Rathedaung) after a wave of inter-communal violence resulted in 89 deaths and the destruction of more than 5,000 homes and buildings.
In earlier violence in June, dozens were killed and some 75,000 Rohingyas were displaced following the alleged rape of a Rakhine woman by a group of Muslim men in May. Most of the displaced are staying in nine overcrowded camps in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State.
Despite the presence of thousands of soldiers and police, security across Rakhine remains tense, while access for aid workersis increasingly proving problematic.
OCHA says more displacements are likely. “The situation is still very, very volatile, it’s very tense. The government is doing its very best to keep the situation under control, but it’s still very fragile,” said Jens Laerke, an OCHA spokesman.
Bangladesh responded to the June violence by enforcing its “closed door” policy more strictly, leaving the Rohingyas in Rakhine State - described by the UN as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world - in an even tighter spot.
Bangladesh is already home to more than 200,000, mostly undocumented Rohingya refugees, and Dhaka insists it is in no position to accept any more.
A dangerous voyage
Thousands could well seek shelter in Malaysia, an escape that requires undertaking a dangerous voyage across the Indian Ocean often in rickety, and overcrowded boats ill-equipped to make the journey, said Maung Kyaw Nu, president of the Burmese Rohingya Association in Thailand.
“Whether they are able to get to Malaysia is another issue,” he said. Many of those getting on the boats are desperate enough to shell out more than US$1,500 for the passage, he added.
Many think the risk is worth it. Mohammad Johar, an undocumented Rohingya in the town of Teknaf in southeastern Bangladesh bordering Rakhine State, is already plotting his escape after saving up money for almost a year, and motivated by his longstanding fear of life back in Myanmar.
“Many things can go wrong. The boat’s motor can stop working. The authorities can try to stop you, since what we’re doing is illegal,” the 23-year-old said.
Groups of 20-30 passengers are typically picked up in the dead of night from various areas in Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar, and Teknaf in southeastern Bangladesh, he explained, from where they are transferred to larger boats at sea.
On 31 October, one such boat on its way to Malaysia reportedly sank. Some 130 Rohingyas on board are believed to have drowned.
“I have learned that last year perhaps as many as 50 percent of all boat refugees died,” said Maung Kyaw Nu.
DHAKA, Bangladesh— They are still trying to count the dead here.
More than a week after the worst factory fire in the country’s history killed at least 112, there are still unsettling questions in the charred rubble. Labor activists are painstakingly tallying the names of the missing to prove that the official death toll significantly downplays the scale of the tragedy.
The 112 confirmed dead, almost all young women, perished at the Tazreen Fashion factory in the industrial district of Ashulia last Saturday evening when a fire consumed the nine-story building where hundreds of garment workers were busy assembling merchandise for some major retailers in the West, including Walmart, Sean Combs’ Enyce and Dickies.
The deadly blaze is the latest in a series of garment factory fires in Bangladesh, one of the world’s leading producers of apparel. Bangladesh has become a battleground for labor organizers and workers who say that in Ashulia, human life often seems to be worth less than the cost of the garments made here.
Minister Obaidul Quader stated in the immediate aftermath of the blaze that those who were charred beyond recognition would be buried in a mass grave. The government has since backtracked in the face of widespread outrage, but labor leaders say this statement revealed much about the government’s attitude toward its people.
“We are seeing that the government does not think of workers as people,” says Kalpona Akter, a labor rights activist who heads the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. “They were only thinking about how to bury them, how to make the problem go away.”
“These deaths can no longer be called accidents. These factories have become slaughterhouses.”
Often held up as one of the key beneficiaries of a booming industry that has provided them with income and independence in conservative, Muslim-majority Bangladesh, this time the women bore the brunt of the most gruesome consequence of working in the country’s garment trade.
The fire broke out on the ground floor of the factory — its cause is as yet undetermined. The ground floor was being used as a warehouse for highly flammable threads and materials, and the blaze swiftly grew out of control and spread to the workers trapped in the floors above, unable to escape down stairwells that were already consumed by flames.
With the windows barred with iron grills, terrified workers desperately pried open exhaust fans looking for a way to get out, according to eyewitness accounts. Nine plunged to their deaths. Once the fire was tamed it became clear there were many more inside. The official number of casualties immediately became a source of controversy.
“I was hearing that the number of dead bodies was at least 170, probably more. But then [Communications Minister] Quader suddenly arrived and declared that it was 111 dead, and since then that’s the number they’ve been giving out,” Akter says.
With 104 people still reportedly missing, workers have taken to the streets in violent protest, some claiming that the actual death toll could be even higher. Rahnuma Ahmed, a civil society leader who organized a protest demanding justice for the victims of the Tazreen fire, is also concerned that the official figure is too low.
“Given that so many are still missing, questions are being raised about the death toll, about why the names of workers working on shifts have not been made public, have not been tallied… we hear of a crèche, but what happened to the children?” Ahmed says. It is not yet confirmed if children were present at the site in the evening when the fire broke out.
“I still can’t find my girl,” cried Nasima Aktar, whose daughter Imran Jahan Riya was a worker at Tazreen Fashion.
Three mid-level managers have since been arrested, accused of closing gates and telling staff to return to work after the fire had started. But many critics point out much deeper, structural problems that resulted in the high death toll.
They insist that factory owners, the government, and international brands like H&M and GAP — whose business has made Bangladesh the second-largest exporter of garments in the world, behind China — take responsibility for the lives of the people working for them.
“In my experience, it’s very clear that there is a very large discrepancy between what the CSR [corporate social responsibility] mandates are and what actually happens within the factories,” says Ravid Chowdhury, a former fellow with the International Growth Center who conducted research with several garment factories in Bangladesh.
“When the electricity goes out, it’s pitch black and you have no idea what’s going on,” Chowdhury said. “Workers get patted down when they leave. A big concern is that they don’t want the workers to steal the materials, so they limit the exits. I haven’t been to this specific factory but I’ve seen in many factories where there’s not enough exits.”
This year new commitments have come from Western retailers to help reform the garment industry in Bangladesh, with Tommy Hilfiger owner Phillips-Van Heusen pledging $1 million after a fire killed 29 workers in a supplier’s factory and GAP more proactively offering up more than $20 million to displaced workers and vendors upgrading their facilities.
But Rahnuma Ahmed says the industry remains in crisis.
“These deaths can no longer be called accidents,” she says. “These factories have become slaughterhouses.”
Babul Akter, who leads the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation, points out several failures on the parts of the owners of Tazreen Fashion.
“The fact that the ground floor was the warehouse, this was a problem,” Babul says. “The warehouse is not supposed to even be in the same building as where the workers are. Whereas the government permission was for three floors, the factory building was eight floors. There wasn’t even a single emergency light. So these deaths have happened because of the owner’s neglect.”
But the owners are not the only ones trying to evade responsibility, Babul and Kalpona say. Walmart, the Bangladeshi garment industry’s single largest client — accounting for 12 percent of exports alone — is now the target of a chorus of criticism in the country and around the world.
“Walmart denied they did business with Tazreen Fashion,” Babul says. “We had to show proof, only then they accepted their responsibility.”
Kalpona and Babul are demanding that brands like Walmart step in and offer compensation for the victims’ families and those who were injured. Meanwhile, the labor leaders —are bracing for an escalation in government and industry intimidation. The backdrop to the escalating tension between the labor activists and the government-backed industry leaders is the brutal murder of the labor activists’ colleague Aminul Islam. He was killed in April after speaking out about the deplorable factory conditions that are resulting in deaths. The murder remains unsolved.
Dhaka, Bangladesh - Strange as it may sound, it is the owners of a garment factory where more than a 100 perished in a deadly fire two days ago who are playing the victim rather than the perpetrator.
“We are the sufferers. We are the victims,” insisted SMH Nodon, the director of marketing at Tuba Group, the parent company of Tazreen Fashion, where a reported 600 people working overtime shifts were trapped by raging flames on Saturday evening.
After some arm-twisting by the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), the trade association representing factory owners, the management has agreed to pay $1,230 as compensation for the families of each victim, amounting to a total of about $152,000. In comparison, the materials destroyed were worth about $12.3m; the construction of the factory cost about the same amount.
“This is a 200 crore taka [$25mn] project. How it got destroyed, we don’t know. If we did we would take action,” said Nodon, whose company produces clothing for Walmart, C&A, and Hong Kong-based mega-supplier Li & Fung.
Tazreen’s owners have been criticised by the Bangladeshi media for lamenting their losses without expressing regret about the loss of lives.
Bangladesh’s Communications Minister Obaidul Quader sparked widespread outrage for displaying a similar lack of concern for victims and their families. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, he proposed burying the burnt corpses en masse before they had been identified. Since then, the government has backtracked, agreeing to perform DNA tests and wait for relatives to come to claim the bodies.
Herein lies the paradox of Bangladesh’s garments industry, which for the past two decades has almost single-handedly driven the country’s economic growth. Built on the back of cheap, abundant labour, its greatest asset is also its most expendable one.
According to Clean Clothes Campaign - the largest alliance of unions and NGOs in the industry - more than 600 garment workers have died in factory fires since 2006.
Engine of economic growth
Bangladesh’s readymade garments sector has experienced spectacular growth since the 1990s. With $17.9bn worth of clothing shipped abroad in 2011, it now accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s exports.
The tiny, overpopulated South Asian nation of 150 million people has become the second-largest exporter of clothing in the world. BGMEA Vice President Faruque Hassan believes the industry does not get enough credit for what it has achieved.
“It is difficult, really difficult. We have so little land. If we could keep the factories at one or two floors, then these incidents would be far rarer. But if I want to open a factory in Thakurgaon [a less densely populated area outside capital Dhaka], I won’t have gas, containers, [or] electricity there. I’m not defending this [fire], there is no forgiveness for this. But as the saying goes, you can sit in the audience and criticise the players, but it’s a different thing to play the game yourself,” Hassan said.
Thousands mourn Bangladesh fire victims
“We are not competitive in any product, only in garments. We don’t even produce the cotton and the petrochemicals the garments industry need, we have no basic raw materials. We have been trying to enter the South American market for years, but we don’t even have an embassy in the entire continent. Only last month, after years of pressure from us, the government opened an embassy in Brazil. And with all these drawbacks we have managed to become the second-largest exporter in the world.”
The tragedy comes as BGMEA, together with several major brands, are undertaking a large-scale fire safety overhaul following several previous disasters. In December 2010, a fire broke out in a garment factory owned by Hamim Group, killing 29. Earlier in March that year, another fire at Garib & Garib Sweater Factory killed 21.
Despite frequent tragedies like the Tazreen blaze and almost non-stop labour unrest, Bangladesh is tipped by the World Bank and the McKinsey consulting group to overtake China as the world’s largest exporter of garments in the near future.
“The one-child policy is now impacting the Chinese economy,” observes Nur Mohammed Amin Rasel, a senior deputy director at BGMEA. “That one child will not want to waste his life in garments.”
In Bangladesh, the industry boasts a workforce of 3.6 million – larger than the entire workforce of Cambodia. In the eyes of global brands such as H&M and Nike, the low wages and the capacity of its labour force give Bangladesh its edge.
The minimum wage was raised in 2010 to about $40 a month, or 21 cents per hour, following worker riots, falling well short of their demands for $65 a month. In comparison the minimum wage in China is 0.93c/hr, Vietnam’s is 0.52c/hr, and India’s is 0.68c/hr.
‘This trade is not fair’
Many point out the hypocrisy of international brands, who respond to factory fires by issuing a long list of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) requirements to protect their image, while at the same time squeezing both local factory owners and workers by demanding lower prices.
“Most of this, improving conditions and wages, depends on the buyers [people working for international brands],” said Amirul Amin, a labour leader who heads the National Garments Worker Federation. “They give us very low prices, then sell the goods for 2 to 3 times as much. They will buy a dozen t-shirts from us for $15, then will sell each [individual] t-shirt back home for $7.”
“The trade they are doing, this trade is not fair. If we are to improve working conditions and wages, buyers need to take responsibility, which they are not taking.”
Ravid Chowdhury, a former Dhaka-based fellow with the International Growth Centre who has studied the garment industry, said: “There’s intense competition, and wherever owners can cut costs they do, and we see that with the hiring of apprentices and helpers who are paid even less than the minimum wage because they’re not full-time employees.”
Following the 2010 Hamim Group fire, there were reports that the exits were locked to prevent theft, leaving workers imprisoned in the inferno. Similar reports of inadequate exits have surfaced following the Tazreen fire, although Hassan rejects these accusations.
Labour leaders, who have complained about poor safety standards, say they are routinely harassed and sometimes even tortured. One labour organiser, Aminul Islam, was brutally murdered in April, with Bangladesh’s security forces allegedly involved in the crime.
‘Life is too hard’
Lovely Deh suffered terrible burns in a factory fire when she was just eleven years old [Credit: Moin Ahsan]
To labour leaders and campaigners, Lovely Deh, 17, is seen as a heartbreaking symbol of the garment industry’s problems. Six years ago, she entered a garment factory as an 11-year-old recruit. “They told me that if anybody asks, then to say that I’m 18,” she said.
Two weeks later, a fire broke out, leaving her disabled, and covered in scars.
“We all noticed that there was some smoke coming, the air started smelling weird,” she recalls. “We all panicked, screaming and shouting, and ran down the stairs. I fell and became unconscious, and later came to in the hospital.”
One of the accomplishments of the garment industry has been its success in eradicating once-common child labour. But factory fires continue unabated, and while the latest victims can expect some compensation, Lovely has not received a penny from the government or the owner of the factory she had worked at.
“My hands hurt too much for me to do any work,” she says.
Lovely lives with her elder brother, who she says is the only one willing to take on the burden of caring for her – her parents no longer are. Many are scared by the sight of her – she says when children see her on the streets they run away in fear.
Her brother has to take out loans every month to pay for her medical care, which amounts to an unaffordable $20 each month. She worries that when it is finally time for her brother to get married, she will have lost her last haven.
“Of course my brother loves me, but when he gets married, then what happens to me? What will happen to me then? My brother is also worried about his future, he wonders how he will ever get married with someone like me around,” she says.
“Don’t pray for me, if you do pray, pray that I die soon. What, have I said something wrong? This life is too hard. “