When Joynal Uddin's younger brother Kamal left their hometown in Bangladesh to seek work in Malaysia last February, the move was sudden. A 30-year-old trader from the town of Cox's Bazar, Joynal said his younger sibling didn't tell their family he was planning to leave. Looking back, the elder Uddin brother suspects a broker who arranges trips to Malaysia from Bangladesh via the Bay of Bengal was behind the disappearance.
"We looked everywhere for him," Joynal told VICE News. "Ten days after his disappearance, when we had nearly given up hope, I received a call from an international number on my cellphone."
It was Kamal on the other end. "He told me that he had left Bangladesh for Malaysia, but he was being held at a camp in Thailand and pleaded me to pay the amount demanded by the brokers," Joynal recalled.
The ransom was set at 170,000 Bangladeshi takas (about $2,200), and the kidnappers threatened to kill Kamal if the money wasn't sent to an account in Bangladesh. Joynal dipped into the family's savings, and two days later Kamal, 25, called again to say he had been released and arrived safely in Malaysia, where he now works at a hotel.
"He wanted to send us money from his income, but I have asked him to save up and return home as soon as he can," Joynal said.
While Kamal survived his ordeal, others who have made the same journey are far less fortunate. Thousands of Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are currently stranded at sea off the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia in a floating humanitarian crisis triggered by a crackdown on human trafficking in Thailand.
The International Office of Migration (IOM) estimated earlier this week that at least 8,000 people are aboard the stranded boats. Many are believed to be without basic supplies needed for survival.
"What we're hearing from these people is that they've been stuck out at sea for weeks and months and then the smugglers just deserted them, left them with very little food and water, no fuel for the engines," Jeffrey Savage, an employee at the Jakarta office of the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR), told Reuters.
Following the discovery of mass graves containing migrants on the Thai-Malaysia border earlier this month, Thailand's military junta began turning away boats suspected of carrying migrants. As a result, migrants began flooding into neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia, prompting authorities in those countries to also refuse to let the vessels dock.
But for years before the recent crisis, Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants routinely faced kidnapping, torture, and forced labor, experts and families of victims told VICE News.
Tasneem Siddiqui, founder of the Dhaka-based Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU), told VICE News that Bangladeshis and Rohingyas have been making the journey to Malaysia in search of work and safety from persecution for more than a decade.
"The situation became more dangerous from 2012 when a network was formed by the traffickers of Bangladesh, Thailand, and Myanmar as they realized that they can make more money through this process," Siddiqui said. Where migrants could once paid a fee and expect to be delivered safely, she explained, the traffickers now hold them for ransom.
According to Siddiqui, the brokers and traffickers target "people from areas in Bangladesh which are more affected by climate change," luring people who are either jobless or landless by promising lucrative work in Southeast Asia. If families don't pay the ransom, Siddiqui said, "the traffickers throw migrants into the sea."
Those who survive end up working at plantations or on fishing boats, where they are treated like slaves, Siddiqui added. And, because they enter countries illegally, migrants are sometimes arrested, imprisoned, and deported back to Bangladesh, she said.
In October 2014 in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, a migrant broker approached Durjoy and Topu Chakma, two 19-year-old freshmen from the city's Ukhia Degree College, along with their elder brother Ajay, a 29-year-old farmer. Chandra Babu, a relative of the three young men, told VICE News that the brokers said the trip to Malaysia would cost the men 2,500 takas ($33) each.
"After landing in Malaysia, they will work as bonded labor for three to four years," Babu said, describing the deal. "Once the agreed term is over, they will be released and then they can work on their own in that country."
The three men boarded a fishing boat on October 15, 2014, and, according to Babu, they weren't heard from again until December, when the family received a call from Thailand. The men wailed over the phone.
"They urged us all to pay what the brokers demanded," Babu said. "We could only imagine what they were facing. Maybe they were being beaten or tortured."
The kidnappers demanded 180,000 takas ($2,350) per hostage. Assuming the police wouldn't help because the men made the trip of their own volition, the family scrambled to raise the money. Then they received another call. This time, the voice on the other end of the line said Topu had died.
The family of seven sold off their two-floored tin shed home to collect the remaining sum, depositing the funds to the bank account of a Cox's Bazar resident on January 1, 2015, according to Babu. They received calls from various numbers in Thailand and Malaysia saying the brothers would be released within a few days, but Babu said another call came 10 days after the ransom was paid announcing that Ajay was also dead.
"The family was shocked," Babu said. "Ajay was married with two children."
A week later, a family relative in Malaysia learned via a phone call that Durjoy was also dead. The Cox's Bazar resident who received the ransom payment was arrested, and the brokers returned the money. But Babu said the ordeal left the families of the victims destitute.
"The youngest brother of Durjoy and Ajay does not have a home," Babu said. "He lives in the houses of relatives and neighbors now. The fate of Ajay's widow and his two children is also uncertain."
Rohingyas may have it even worse than Bangladeshis. According to Mabrur Ahmed, founder of Restless Beings, a London-based human rights organization that monitors the Muslim ethnic group's situation in Myanmar, many Rohingyas make the dangerous trip by sea to Malaysia in order to flee persecution.
Ahmed shared the story of an elderly Rohingya man who walked from Myanmar's western Rakhine state to Thailand in 2012 after his hut was burned down with his wife and child inside.
"As a manual laborer, he is now hoping to attain a refugee status in Thailand," Ahmed said. "He sends the majority of the little money he earns to racketeers who he had to borrow from in order to grant him a safe passage."
According to Ahmed, sexual assaults on Rohingya women and children by traffickers have also been reported. He said the victims are unable to return to Myanmar for fear of heavy-handed punishment by the government.
"Often these people have spent months getting to countries like Malaysia," Ahmed said. "They are facing almost a guarantee of death at sea."
Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country that has accepted thousands of Rohingya refugees over the years, has said its navy will ward off migrant boats unless they are in dire straits, and Indonesia's navy is likewise continuing to turn the vessels away. Thai officials have said their navy will give humanitarian aid to boats carrying migrants, but they have made it clear that permanent settlers aren't welcome.
Thailand plans to host a regional summit to address the immigration crisis, but the meeting isn't scheduled to occur until May 29. In the meantime, senior officials at Malaysia's Foreign Ministry told the Associated Press on Sunday that a three-way meeting would take place Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur with the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Thailand.
Follow Syed Tashfin Chowdhury on Twitter: @Tashfinster