Morshed Alam, a Bangladeshi citizen from Cumilla, had long cherished a dream of living and working in the United States of America, one of the most developed countries in the world.
For eight gruelling years, he tried to enter the USA illegally and failed repeatedly.
Morshed's perilous journey, spanning nearly 3,000 days across multiple countries, ended near the Brazil border this year. Along the way, Morshed braved a dangerous journey on the Arabian Sea, spent time in camps, survived on nuts and berries in deep forests, and came in contact with the world's most notorious human trafficking gang led by a Bangladeshi named Saifullah Al Mamun.
As he was trying to leave Brazil and go to Mexico illegally, the Brazilian police detained him from the Peru-Brazil border on June 6 and deported him to Bangladesh. Morshed boarded a plane bound for his homeland with nothing but the clothes on his back.
Jobless and penniless, Morshed now lives with his family in Daudkandi upazila. He could not achieve his dream, but he has a story to tell. And his is a story that echoes the stories of thousands of other young Bangladeshis who take on such dangerous journeys every year through dangerous seas, armed and fenced borders, deep forests – often hiding inside cargo containers or orlops in ships – to reach their dream destinations in search of a better life.
A student of National University, Morshed Alam started his journey to the United States of America at the age of 22. His first destination was the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The recruiting agency – Morshed could not recall its name – made arrangements for him to go to the UAE embassy in Dhaka and apply for a tourist visa. He paid Tk6 lakh to the recruiting agency.
After getting the visa on his genuine Bangladeshi passport, he left home for the UAE with several other Bangladeshis on January 8, 2011. He started planning for his future and what he would do after reaching his destination.
After arriving in Dubai, he travelled to Mozambique on a ship across the Arabian Sea and the Mozambique Channel. It took Morshed a month to reach the Mozambique coast from the UAE.
During this leg of the journey, Morshed lost contact with his family, who were anxiously waiting for news from him.
"The month-long journey to Mozambique was one of the most awful experiences of my life. The ship sailed on the Arabian Sea in the direction of Mozambique," Morshed recounted his memories.
He added that the sea voyage was dangerous and the possibility of drowning was high.
"My recruiting agency never gave me any support. During the voyage, there was a chance of being attacked by pirates near the Somalian coast. But against all odds, we reached the Mozambique coast without hassle," Morshed said.
After reaching Mozambique, Morshed made several failed attempts to enter South Africa from Mozambique through the land border and by waterways. Unable to move forward, he remained stuck in a camp for a few months.
Later that year, Morshed finally managed to cross the Mozambique border and enter South Africa.
But another chapter of misery was waiting for him there. With no clue on what to do next, Morshed started working at a petrol pump in Johannesburg in South Africa to support himself.
He then worked in a grocery shop owned by a Bangladeshi in the same area for around seven years. Morshed was also able to contact his family in Bangladesh while living in South Africa.
A change of plans
Morshed changed his route to enter the USA in 2019 and went to Tunisia by crossing multiple borders and journeying hundreds of kilometres. He planned to enter the USA illegally via Tunisia and Brazil.
He made several failed attempts to enter Brazil during this period.
Morshed finally managed to enter Brazil in March this year. It took him around seven days to reach Sao Paulo city. He got in touch with a Bangladeshi member of a human trafficking gang in the city, who promised to get Morshed to his destination, the USA.
Morshed continued narrating his experience, "Most of the immigrants trying to enter the USA illegally entered Brazil through Guarulhos International Airport carrying false passports and documents.
"The human trafficking gang gave counterfeit immigrant registration documents (RNE) to illegal immigrants. They are mostly from countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India Pakistan and other South Asian countries. The immigrants were then transported to an area named Acre."
Each person had to pay around 47,000 Brazilian reais (roughly Tk6-7 lakh) to the human trafficking gang, which smuggles around 30-50 people across the region each month.
Morshed remembered that he was stuck in a villa known as the shelter camp with a group of other people.
"At this time, human traffickers from Sao Paulo made contact with Rio Branco taxi drivers via messaging apps (such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Imo, and Messenger), and sent photos of migrants so taxi drivers can recognise them on arrival and take them to the Brazilian border with Peru," he said.
During his journey, Morshed heard the name of Saifullah Al Mamun, a 32-year-old Bangladeshi man who is on Interpol's list. Mamun was one of eight people detained in an operation by the Federal Police of Brazil on October 31 this year in Sao Paulo.
So close, yet so far
Morshed started on the final leg of the journey towards the USA with around 17 people from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, India and other South-Asian countries.
He left Sao Paulo and headed towards Peru with the group, with no idea of what lay ahead.
"It was a deep forest near the Peru-Brazil border, and we did not have anything to eat for at least three days. When the hunger became unbearable, we ate unknown fruits from the forest and drank water from a canal. It was a terrible journey," Morshed recalled.
On an ill-fated morning in late March this year, Brazil police arrested Morshed and his fellow travellers from the national reserve forest Mastes, which is along the Peru-Brazil border.
"I was very shocked after my arrest. I thought I would land in jail for years, but that did not happen," he said.
The police checked Morshed's nationality and passport, then deported him to Tunisia. He stayed at a refugee camp there for the next 60 days. On June 11 this year, Morshed returned to Bangladesh with the help of the International Organisation for Migration.
Morshed never reached the US-Mexico border, but he learned everything about the dangerous journey from other migrants.
Quoting his Afghan friend Shafaqat who was lucky enough to reach Mexico, Morshed said, "The journey through the woods is very risky. Near the Colombian-Panama border, illegal immigrants cross the Darien Jungle in about five to ten days on foot, facing various dangers such as jaguars, venomous snakes and drug traffickers.
"On the Mexican-US border, immigrants face the danger of being kidnapped by Mexican cartels. Even if people manage to reach the USA illegally, many get arrested or detained by the local authorities."
Morshed added that many travel through Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico to reach the USA.
Who is Saifullah Al Mamun?
Saifullah al Mamun is known in Brazil and the USA as the world's biggest human trafficker. Saifullah and seven other human trafficking gang members are being tried in the USA after they were arrested in Sao Paolo recently.
Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies know very little about him.
Responding to a query, Bangladesh Police's spokesperson and Assistant Inspector General Mir Sohel Rana said they also learned about the human trafficker through media reports.
"We are yet to learn in details about Saifullah's operation in Bangladesh, and whether he was involved in human trafficking before he went to Brazil," he said.
Rapid Action Battalion spokesperson Lt Col Sarwar Bin Kashem echoed the opinion, saying, "We are trying to get information about Saifullah Al Mamun but we have made little progress so far."
Sources from the Interpol National Central Bureau in Dhaka said Brazil police sent a letter to Bangladeshi authorities more than five months ago, seeking more information on Saifullah.
"Following the home ministry's directives, police headquarters sent the letter to the Special Branch which is currently working on the matter," said a bureau official on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, an assistant secretary of the foreign ministry's America desk, preferring to be unnamed, said they are also aware of Saifullah al Mamun.
"But Bangladeshi law enforcers are yet to respond to the Brazil police's query about Saifullah Al Mamun and his gang," the official added.
Commenting on the issue, Shariful Islam Hasan, head of the Brac migration programme, said, "We also received some complaints about these human trafficking routes. In recent years, America deported a few Bangladeshis who were trying to enter the country illegally.
"We have heard of several cases of illegal immigrants getting deported from Brazil while they were heading towards the USA. The Brazil police suspect that two or three more human trafficking gangs are still active in the country."
Shariful urged local law enforcers to track down the traffickers' base of operation in Bangladesh.
"Saifullah has been arrested in Brazil. The Bangladesh Police and other government agencies should investigate the matter more seriously. They should seek information from the Brazil police through Interpol regarding the human trafficking gangs," Shariful pointed out.
He added that after getting detailed information about the gang, law enforcers can catch their cohorts in Bangladesh who are luring innocent people into trafficking rackets.