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Inside the Bangladesh brothels where Rohingya girls are suffering

Warning: This article contains graphic content. It is disturbing and not suitable for children.

It’s late at night in Cox’s Bazar, and the normal slow pace of business in this beach town has picked up recently. International Aid groups have been pouring into the neighboring refugee camps to help with the Rohingya refugee crisis. Since late last year over 700,000 refugees — mostly women and children — have fled a brutal crackdown in their home of Rakhine State by Myanmar government forces.

But despite the assistance and support of aid groups, a black market underbelly thrives, where prostitution of Rohingya girls has become a common. It’s visible inside of the Rohingya camps at night when there is less security and fewer aid groups present.

Inside of Kutupalong camp, a camp leader led me into some of the biggest brothels that use many vulnerable women scattered throughout the camps. I saw first-hand women sitting outside of their huts smoking cigarettes, and female pimps draped in gold. This is an uncommon sight among the Rohingya: most refugees come from insular, conservative Muslim families. Sex work is seen as highly taboo.

One of the brothels we visited was run by a Rohingya woman who married a Bangladeshi man. The huts made of bamboo and plastic sheets had four sex workers inside per day, serving both Bangladeshi and Rohingya men. I met with a girl whose name I can not mention for security reasons; I’ll call her Sumaiya to protect her identity.

Sumaiya told me she got into sex work out of desperation after her abusive husband left her. She said she does sex work to survive. “The food handout is not enough, when my kids cry for rice where will I get it from? I’m only doing this to support my family. I feel bad doing it but I have to survive somehow.” She sees two men per day for 20 minutes who give her $2-6. She usually sees Rohingya men as clients, but on occasion Bangladeshi men appear. Those men raised her suspicion, as she has seen Rohingya girls being trafficked from the camps into the main city center.

We decided to find out where these brothels were. As evening fell, We drove past the tourist areas of Cox’s Bazar. Inside the neighborhoods, local Bangladeshi tourists can be seen with cigarettes in hand, lurking outside of small hotels with fluorescent lights blinking, a sex worker in bright colors popping out every now and then. These rows of hotels are packed with young Rohingya girls often sold for sex to local tourists.

It is not easy to get inside these places. Unless you know the right people, it is impossible to navigate. Our journey began by meeting with the godfather of all the local pimps at a tea stall nearby the brothels. According to locals, he had been running the sex trade business inside of Cox’s Bazar for years. He told me the only way I could get in was if I pretended to be a sex worker. According to him, the brothel I was visiting was home to several Rohingya sex workers who were new arrivals. He made a phone call to one of the madams (the women who run the brothels), and she agreed to meet me and my colleague, also a journalist. We took an auto rickshaw to the location with one of the sex workers. We stayed quiet as we pretended to be sex workers ourselves.

Bangladeshi trafficker and pimp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by Phil Caller

As we walked through the narrow alleys, there was a sign that read “MA,” which means ‘mother’ in Bangla. The sign was made to honor the Bangladeshi madam (female pimp) adorned in gold jewelry and two phones. She said she manages several girls in the brothel — I wandered the little block filled with small huts, and little girls with clients inside of them. The men looked older. I couldn’t ask many questions but I could see the pain and horror in their eyes. And according my fixer, some of the girls in there were, in fact, Rohingya.

But I wanted to know who these girls were, and to find a safe space to speak to them. So my fixer went back to these sprawling brothels and organized an interview with a Rohingya girl, whose name I can not say for security reasons. I’ll call her Hasina. She stayed at a hotel run by a Bangladeshi pimp. Our fixer arranged her to meet us at a hotel in the area at 10 p.m. where most Rohingya girls go to sleep with tourists. She arrived in an auto rickshaw with a Bangladeshi friend, also a sex worker. The room was two stories up, in a rundown building surrounded by local Bangladeshi men.

When I arrived at the room, I saw Hasina sitting anxiously in salwar kamees, a traditional bengali attire, and bright makeup. She assumed I was another sex worker.

I explained to her that I wanted to hear her story, and with her permission, I was granted an interview. We sat on the edge of a bed, which smelled of fresh human flesh, the bed sheets itched my skin, and the walls were stained with a dry red color. I wondered if it was blood.

Hasina showed me her purse, which had makeup, lubricant and a stick for protection from abusive clients she fears might attack her for being Rohingya. Recently she said another Rohingya sex worker was beat to death by a client. She took her high heels off, and stared into my eyes. I sensed her helplessness.

It was there she told me about the horrific acts she endured before arriving to Bangladesh. Her eyes morphed into shock as she went back to the moments she was tortured.

“They beat me, tied my hands and feet and hung me from a tree. Next to me there was another woman. The soldiers cut her belly and vagina. They cut off her breasts and put them in plastic bag. I started screaming and a solder bit a piece of my cheek off. Then they pulled me down and gang raped me.

She woke up naked in a daze three days later next to river, with stab wounds on her face. It was then she decided to swim across the Naf River to Bangladesh.

But life in the Rohingya camps were tough. She couldn’t make ends meet to survive to feed herself and her family. She turned to selling yaba, a methamphetamine drug, to get by. Many of her clients were Rohingya and Bangladeshi locals. But she eventually got caught and ended up in jail for a few months. Upon release, she was back at the camps, where she said she was suffering and wanted to do something with her life.

“My friend said, ‘Why don’t you run away from the camps? I know people who can help you. Do you want work in a garment factory?’ I said yes.”

Little did she know, her “friend” was a Rohingya trafficker. A car picked her up from the camp and took her across the main roads to Cox’s Bazar. She says she wasn’t stopped by the army, as the pimps who took her had made a deal with them. She ended up at a brothel.

Tania Rashid with Rohingya sex worker, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo by Phil Caller

She now works seven days a week and gets $1 per client after the pimp takes his cut. She says she relives her trauma of abuse from the Myanmar military everyday as a sex worker.

“I saw five men at the same time today. They are raping me the same way the Myanmar soldier raped me. They pin my hands to the bed, force my legs open and thrust so hard it hurts.” She says her pimp gives her steroids to keep her plump and she takes painkillers to numb herself.

But stories like hers are not uncommon. With the influx of tens of thousands of Rohingyas since late last year, business for pimps has been quite lucrative. A pimp working in the business for two years has been pleased with the influx. He says his clients like Rohingya girls who are young are easy to manipulate.

“When the Rohingya girls arrive in Bangladesh, they don’t know anything. They are so innocent, scared, and unaware. I tell these little girls, look you have nobody, I’ll marry you, but we need money to get married. Rohingya girls are easy to convince. I have sex with all my girls, I take their virginity. Then I share them with the clients.”

He said most of his clients are Bangladeshi tourists, but on occasion foreigners from the West visit too. “They stay in the big hotels and keep the girls for two to three days. I don’t speak directly to the white men, usually a hotel manager calls me and asks me to send over photos, they are the liaison.”

As the exploitation continues, girls like Hasina who end up in desperate situations continue to suffer. Hasina says she finds it hard to dream. The daily trauma she faces gives her nightmares.

With a look of despair on her face, she tells me, “I think I might die. A future with a husband is not in my cards. I accept my life will never be settled. Every night, I dream that a group of men murder me at night. They strangle me to death. I think this will become my fate soon.”