On the road that leads towards the Bangladesh and Myanmar border, which is carved out of the lush green valley by the River Naf, there comes a point where a colony of clay dwellings sprout suddenly from the hills.

These huts form the Kutupalong refugee camp - a place that has periodically swelled with Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh from persecution in western Myanmar's Rakhine state. 

Here among the sun-bleached walls and roofs fashioned from black plastic sheeting laden with leaves, there is an uneasy quiet among the 60,000 inhabitants. In recent months and years, many of those of the age deemed to be the most vociferous have disappeared.

While children play on the sandbag stairways with improvised toys, women crouch at the threshold of their homes -- just six-foot high at their peak -- and older men gather in wooden huts serving tea, the younger Rohingya men are missing, possibly in their thousands.

Alongside many Bangladeshis from the nearby area, the men are the victims of an international human trafficking network that has transported 25,000 people from Bangladesh and Myanmar this year, according to the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR).

The traffickers promise freedom and opportunity in Malaysia, but in reality, profit by extorting large ransoms from the victims’ families prevails.

“I saw it with my very eyes. Three females, five males, missing since 2009. Their houses are very close to mine,” Zahid Hossain, 28, a Rohingya teacher, told Anadolu Agency earlier this month.

“Maybe 10,000 people have left from the refugee camps, from this maybe 2,000 people are missing.”

The scale of the trafficking was brought to the world's attention this month by the discovery of mass graves in Thailand’s southern jungles and the subsequent arrival of thousands of boat people on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Several Rohingya and Bangladeshi families told Anadolu Agency that months after their relatives had left Bangladesh, they received phone calls from Thai or Malaysian numbers demanding ransoms as large as 200,000 Taka ($2,500).

But even those who scrambled to collect the funds -- from loan sharks or by selling land -- have still not heard from their relatives.

“I paid 100,000 Taka around eight or nine months ago but then didn’t hear anything,” says Syed Alam, 50.

He said his 17-year-old son had worked in a restaurant in Cox’s Bazar until he was convinced to look for new work elsewhere, then sold onto the traffickers.

“Then around five months ago I got a phone call, saying he has died,” says Alam.

He and another half dozen men are squeezed into a small tea shop in the beach town. In front of them they have scraps of paper bearing scrawled phone numbers beginning with +60 or +66, the country calling codes for Malaysia and Thailand.

It was from these numbers that they received the ransom demands.

The communication was all one-way. After the initial demand was made, the families would try to re-establish contact, frantically dialing the numbers, but the traffickers would only pick up when ready to renew their demands.

Weeks - sometimes months later - the money would be paid to a local broker, or sometimes through an mobile phone payment system.

On confirmation, the phone lines would go dead, the families left with no means to find out whether their child or husband was alive.

“They asked for 180,000 to 200,000 Taka. Since then, there’s been no news,” says Murjina Begum, whose husband -- like many others -- left for a new life in Malaysia, before bringing his family over.

Murjina says that when she last spoke to him a month ago, he pleaded for her over the phone numbers to somehow arrange payment.

“There’s a lack of food, the traffickers beat them. He said ‘We’re in hell, save me.’”

Murjina’s neighbor Anwara Begum says that despite paying for her husband’s release, she still receives calls from his captors, who claim the money got lost and demand fresh payment.

Shobika Begum, another of the young women huddled around the doorway of Murjina’s home, says her concern is made worse by the financial stress.

“We borrowed the money on interest. We had six months to pay it back,” says Shobika. 

“The biggest threat now is that we have to pay back the loan with interest. Four months have passed and we don’t know how to pay,” she adds.

An elder neighbor has better news; her two sons have made it alive to Malaysia - but they are in prison.

The relief of knowing her sons have survived and are no longer in the hands of traffickers, however, far outweighs any concern over their incarceration.

Elsewhere in Cox's Bazar, many Bangladeshis share the same story. 

Muhammad Rafique, who works in a guesthouse, arranged the 200,000 Taka payment for his 16-year-old brother-in-law Abdul Jalil, who went missing eight months ago.

“After we gave the money, we didn’t hear anything. Then, again, after a month they said to give another 30,000,” he adds.

He says his family demanded a phone or video conversation with the boy before paying anything more.

“Then they admitted that he had died,” he says.

Follow-up ransoms from traffickers are not the only problem - on money being paid, many victims are then sold on to other people smugglers.

“This is the main problem. I heard many families are missing people,” says Tin Soe, editor of the Bangladesh-based Rohingya news network Kaladan Press.

“If they are not getting any money after two or three months, they will sell them to a fishing boat [and thus into servitude],” he says. 

He describes working on the boats as "a one way road" - "If you are sick, they will throw you overboard.”

Muhammad Jalal Uddin Sikder, senior research associate at the Bangladesh-based Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, says many of the victims of trafficking are forced into such bonded labor. 

“If you look at the landlords of Thailand, you’ll see many people captive in the houses. The same thing in Malaysia,” says Sikder. 

“They say: ‘if you don’t pay me, then you’ll work for me for the next three or four years.’”

While Bangladeshis are able to go to police, most Rohingya are unable to seek help. The majority of the estimated 250,000 refugees in Bangladesh are unregistered and risk arrest if they try and get such assistance. 

Options are even limited for the 35,000 refugees, who live in government-run, UNHCR-supported camps in the country.

“At least 20 percent of registered youth have gone. Most of them are missing, there’s been no news of them,” says Zafor Alam Dipu, a Rohingya activist based near the Kutupalong camp.

“We contacted UNHCR but they said to tell the government. But if we take a list of the names [of the missing] to the Bangladeshi government, then they will brand me a broker,” claims Dipu.

“There is a magistrate in the camp appointed by the government. He just receives the complaint but doesn’t communicate with us.”

The UNHCR says, however, that it does provide some support, by advocating that the government address certain cases.

Taken, tied, sold to traffickers

The traffickers rely mostly on a rapidly expanding network of brokers to convince usually young and naive Rohingya and Bangladeshis to make the trip to Malaysia.

They claim it is cheap and risk-free, but also turn to other methods if the boats are not filling quick enough.

Then, they frequently utilize the services of the pirates of the Bay of Bengal and criminals from the border town of Teknaf, to kidnap the rest of the cargo.

“If any Rohingya is walking between Teknaf and Cox’s Bazar then some people with contact with the traffickers can take them and put them on a boat,” says Zahid Hossain. “The families don’t know because they thought they were just out walking." 

He says the next thing the families know of their whereabouts is in a "phone call from Thailand.”

Lt. M Shahid Hossain Chowdhury, the coastguard commander at Teknaf, tells Anadolu Agency that rich pickings also come from kidnapping tourists to the popular Cox’s Bazar beach, or fishermen who often venture deep out to sea.

The fishermen are particularly vulnerable to attacks from pirates, says Rohingya activist Dipu, adding that almost a third of trafficking victims were kidnapped.

“When they go fishing there might be five to 10 of them together, then armed men will take them to the ship," he says. "The people on the ship then buy the hostages for 10,000 per person.”

He underlines that it is not just Rohingya fishermen who are caught up in the kidnapping - the heavily armed boats that roam the seas carry out regular raids.

Fishermen at the Cox’s Bazar wholesale fish market told Anadolu Agency that boats often come under attack - sometimes by around 10 pirate vessels - after sources on land pass on information that they heading out to sea.

In some cases the pirates keep the hostages, moving into areas with mobile service coverage to make phone calls demanding ransoms, then returning further out to sea to avoid being tracked. 

In other cases they sell the hostages onto the traffickers.

“My brother-in-law is a fisherman and he went down the coast for fishing,” says Abdul Hafiz, 35, who lives in the unregistered Kutupalong Rohingya settlement. 

"He was kidnapped; tied up and put in a boat... I got a call one day, asking for 200,000 Taka. How could I pay this?"

He says that three months ago they told him "maybe he’s dead."

"'How can we keep him alive if you don’t pay?’ they said.”

Anadolu Agency