At least 23 teenage Rohingya girls have been rescued after being brought from refugee camps to the capital, Dhaka, to be sent to Malaysia by air, Bangladesh police said on Sunday.
Dhaka police also arrested four human traffickers including a Rohingya couple and recovered more than 50 Bangladeshi passports from them on Saturday.
Police spokesman Mokhlesur Rahman said they raided a residence in the northern part of the city and found the teenagers hiding in a room behind a tailoring shop.
“They were promised jobs in Malaysia and brought from refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar,” he told AFP news agency, referring to the Rohingya settlements in Bangladesh’s southeastern coastal district.
The girls – aged between 15 and 19 – could have been potential victims of forced prostitution, the official said.
“We have filed cases against the four arrested persons and sent the girls back to their camps in Cox’s Bazar,” Rahman said.
Abul Khair, local police chief of Ukhiya, where Kutupalong, the largest refugee camp in the world, is situated, said he received the girls and would send them to their homes in the camps.
Some 740,000 Rohingya fled a brutal military clampdown in Myanmar in August 2017 and arrived in Bangladesh to join another 300,000 already living in the refugee camps.
Desperate for a better life and an economic future, the refugees including in particular teenage girls easily fall prey to human traffickers roaming in the overcrowded camps.
According to Rohingya activists and rights groups, dozens of women are now regularly arriving in Malaysia to marry Rohingya men, reviving a form of transnational human trafficking that once moved thousands of Rohingya a year.
Thousands of Rohingya refugees have risked their lives travelling to Malaysia and Thailand, mainly by boat, when the Bay of Bengal is calm before monsoon season sets in at the end of May.
Bangladeshi authorities have stopped more than 300 Rohingya this year alone from attempting such perilous boat journeys on rickety fishing boats.
Many have also attempted to fly to Malaysia and Middle Eastern countries by procuring Bangladeshi passports and travel documents.
“Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar have few options. They cannot work and have no formal access to education,” John Quinley, a resercher with Fortify Rights, told Al Jazeera.
“Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh fear forced repatriation or relocation to the island. All these push factors could lead to a real uptick in Rohingya families – including girls – moving to Malaysia, some for child marriage,” he added.
Jishu Barua, an aid worker specialised in human trafficking prevention, said he dealt with 100 cases of human trafficking in the camps in the last six weeks.
“But this figure represents only a small portion of what is actually going on,” he told AFP.
Muslim-majority Rohingya have faced persecution in Myanmar for decades. Myanmar stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship in 1982, rendering them stateless.