Bangladesh authorities have launched a crackdown on suspected people-smugglers masquerading as "travel agents" after dozens of Bangladeshis drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, officials said Thursday.
About 60 people died last week when a boat full of would-be migrants capsized while trying to cross from Libya to Italy, in a case that has put the spotlight on the desperate struggle of young unemployed Bangladeshis to find work abroad.
Fourteen Bangladeshis were among 16 people rescued by Tunisian fishermen, while Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said 39 Bangladeshis were unaccounted for.
Families of those who died said the so-called "travel agents" took money from youths in exchange for a passage to Libya and the promise of a sea crossing to Europe.
Authorities sealed off 23 travel agencies in northeastern Sylhet district after it was found many were working for international trafficking networks, Momen said.
"We will take stern action against these agents," he told reporters.
Five mobile courts set up on the back of trucks ordered jail terms for nine suspected traffickers and another 29 were fined, said Sylhet government administrator Kazi Emdadul Islam.
Magistrate Nasirullah Khan said the crackdown will continue against the "greedy and illegal travel agents" who prey on unemployed young men.
"We want to ensure no mother would ever lose her child again," he said.
Tens of thousands of young Bangladeshi men have attempted the perilous Mediterranean crossing in recent years, and the number of traffickers catering to them has mushroomed.
While the Bangladesh economy has grown at an annual clip of 6-7 percent through the decade, there are still not enough jobs and many young men try to reach Europe and North America on death-defying illegal routes.
Growing unemployment is fuelling desperation to escape, said Professor Jalal Uddin Sikder, a migration expert at the University of Liberal Arts in Dhaka.
"Low paid jobs are available but these young men want better paid jobs in the West," he told AFP.
"But many do not survive the long, tiring journey through the desert and across the seas, while some get sold as slaves even before they reach the Libyan coast."