By Naimul Karim
DHAKA, July 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bangladesh has arrested 12 men suspected of targeting Rohingya refugees for trafficking, police said on Friday, amid concerns over the growing desperation of the refugees.
Two Rohingya women and a Bangladeshi child were also held in the operation by the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite force of the Bangladesh police, in the capital Dhaka late on Thursday. Police said they were being questioned.
The arrests came as U.N. investigator Yanghee Lee warned traffickers were increasingly targeting Rohingya both in Myanmar and in neighbouring Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands fled following a brutal military crackdown in 2017.
Mainly Buddhist Myanmar regards the Muslim minority Rohingya as illegal migrants.
"These traffickers are involved in sending people to Malaysia and the Middle East," Major Mohammad Ashraful Haque told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
He said they had taken 250,000 taka ($3,000) from each of the three and had given them fake identity documents.
"We suspect that they were bringing in more Rohingya," he added.
In a statement, the RAB said the suspects were part of a "human trafficking ring" that had long been "taking advantage of the desperate Rohingya".
Scores of Rohingya have boarded boats in recent months to try to reach Malaysia and Thailand, prompting fears of a fresh wave of people smuggling by sea.
An earlier upsurge of sectarian violence in Myanmar prompted tens of thousands of Rohingya to flee, an exodus that peaked in 2015, when an estimated 25,000 left for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Many drowned in unsafe and overloaded boats.
There are now about 900,000 Rohingya refugees living in camps on Bangladesh's southeast coast, in an area that covers about 6,000 acres - just under half the size of Manhattan.
Heavy rains have pounded the camps in the past two weeks, destroying hundreds of temporary structures.
Bangladesh has pledged to boost its anti-trafficking efforts in the camps following criticism from Washington.
Government figures show authorities in Bangladesh rescued at least 250 Rohingya from human traffickers in the first half of this year.
But Haque said the arrests were "just the tip of the iceberg".
"We are trying to find out more stakeholders involved in this. It's difficult, because these arrests make traffickers careful. We will follow this for a long time and find out more," he said.
($1 = 84.2500 taka)
(Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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