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These Rohingya are not Victims of Human Traffickers

Aman Ullah
RB Opinion
May 28, 2015

“What needs to change here is that the Rohingya need to feel welcome in the country of their birth, in the country of their parents’ birth, of their grandparents’ birth,” 

Tom Malinowski, US Assistant Secretary of State 

No people leave their traditional hearths and homes unless there is a serious threat to their personal security. For decades, wave after wave of Burmese refugees have fled war and oppression in their native land to seek uncertain exile in neighboring countries. Particularly the unending plight of Rohingya Muslims of Arakan continues, with time appearing to be running out for the thousands currently stranded in boats off Southeast Asian shores.

Over the last few weeks the international community has witnessed yet another round of human disaster. It is aghast at the reports, photos and television footages of the new boat people of Asia. Thousands of ethnic minority Rohingya from Burma is fleeing horrendous conditions and the threat of genocide in Burma. Now they are floating at sea trapped in crowded wooden boats. With food and clean water running low, their lives are in danger. There are also some Bangladeshi economic migrants and trafficked victims most of them are also from Bangladesh. 

These Rohingya are not victims of human traffickers, they are victims of state sponsors persecution that compelled them to flee from their country with the help of human smugglers.

Human trafficking 

Human trafficking is a trading, exploitation and movement of people without their permission or consent for the profit of a third party. It is the trade of humans, most commonly for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation for the trafficker or others. This may encompass providing a spouse in the context of forced marriage, or the extraction of organs or tissues, including for surrogacy and ova removal. Human trafficking can occur within a country or trans-nationally. Human trafficking is a crime against the person because of the violation of the victim's rights of movement through coercion and because of their commercial exploitation. Human trafficking is the trade in people, and does not necessarily involve the movement of the person from one place to another.

Human trafficking represented an estimated $31.6 billion of international trade per annum in 2010. Human trafficking is thought to be one of the fastest-growing activities of trans-national criminal organizations. Human trafficking is condemned as a violation of human rights by international conventions. 

Human Smuggling

Human smuggling is the illegal moving of people across state or national boundaries outside the rules governing such borders. Human smuggling is the facilitation, transportation, attempted transportation or illegal entry of a person(s) across an international border, in violation of one or more countries laws, either clandestinely or through deception, such as the use of fraudulent documents. This may or may not be done for a fee; it is the actual moving that is the issue. Human smuggling involves a person voluntarily requesting or hiring another individual to covertly transport them across an international border, usually because the smuggled person would be denied entry into a country by legal channels. Though illegal, there may be no deception or coercion involved. After entry into the country and arrival at their ultimate destination, the smuggled person is usually free to find their own way.

According to the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), people smuggling is a violation of national immigration laws of the destination country, and does not require violations of the rights of the smuggled person. Human trafficking, on the other hand, is a crime against a person because of the violation of the victim's rights through coercion and exploitation. Unlike most cases of people smuggling, victims of human trafficking are not permitted to leave upon arrival at their destination.

While smuggling requires travel, trafficking does not. Trafficked people are held against their will through acts of coercion, and forced to work for or provide services to the trafficker or others. The work or services may include anything from bonded or forced labor to commercial sexual exploitation. The arrangement may be structured as a work contract, but with no or low payment, or on terms which are highly exploitative. Sometimes the arrangement is structured as debt bondage, with the victim not being permitted or able to pay off the debt.

While there are significant differences between human trafficking and human smuggling, the underlying issues that give rise to these illegal activities are often similar. Generally, extreme poverty, lack of economic opportunities, civil unrest, and political uncertainty, are factors that all contribute to an environment that encourages human smuggling and trafficking in persons.

The Rohingya and Human Smuggling

The Rohingya are the worst victims of human rights violations in Burma. They were displaced. Since 1948, expelling the Rohingyas from their ancestral land and properties has become almost a recurring phenomenon. About 2 million uprooted Rohingyas have taken shelters in many countries of the world since the anti-Muslim pogrom of 1942 in Arakan. Rights groups say the Rohinggyas have "no choice" but to leave, paying people smugglers to help them. The UN estimates more than 120,000 Rohingyas have fled in the past three years.

In 1982, Burma approved a law that officially restricted citizenship to members of ethnic groups it said had settled in modern-day Burma prior to 1823. The Rohingya were not considered one of those groups and its members effectively became stateless.

The lack of citizenship deprives Rohingyas of basic rights, including access to education, freedom of movement, land rights, the protection of their property and the right to marry freely.

Tensions between Buddhists and Royingya Muslims in Rakhine state have lingered for decades but intensified in recent years, partly fueled by the hate-mongering rhetoric of extremist Buddhist monks. The International Crisis Group explains that decades of discontent among Rakhine's Buddhists over discrimination by the government, economic marginalization and human rights abuses have morphed into a general anger and fear toward the state's Muslim communities -- particularly Rohingyas. As ICG noted in a 2013 report, people's hatred for the Rohingya in Rakhine state stems from "considerable pent-up frustration and anger under years of authoritarianism that are now being directed towards Muslims by a populist political force that cloaks itself in religious respectability and moral authority."

But the anti-Rohingya sentiment transgresses Rakhine state's border and is widespread among Burmese Buddhist population. Burmese president, Thein Sein, said in 2012 that the “only solution” to the sectarian strife between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine was to expel the Rohingya to other countries or to camps overseen by the United Nations refugee agency. The issue is so sensitive that even Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner from Burma, has failed to speak out about it.

The tensions between Buddhists and Rohingyas led to major violence in 2012 and 2013, when clashes left hundreds dead and forced 140,000 Royingya people to flee their homes for temporary refugee camps outside the state capital, Sittwe.

The camps are known for horrible conditions; they lack adequate housing, sanitary provisions, and access to food, education and health care. Aid organizations have been refused access to the sites several times in the past years. The Associated Press described the living situation as "apartheid-like."

The humanitarian crisis is most acute in the camps for internally displaced peoples. In June 2014, the UN Assistant General-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-hwa Kang, said after visiting the camps: “I witnessed a level of human suffering in the IDP camps that I have personally never seen before ... appalling conditions .... wholly inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water and sanitation.” 

Those words echo the words of the Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Baroness Amos, who said after visiting the camps in December 2012: “I have seen many camps during my time but the conditions in these camps rank among the worst. Unfortunately we as the United Nations are not able to get in and do the range of work we would like to do with those people, so the conditions are terrible ... It’s a dire situation and we have to do something about it.”

In October 2014, the spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Myanmar, Mr Pierre Peron, said of one particular camp, Nget Chaung: “No one should have to live in the conditions that we see in Nget Chaung”. 

The current UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee has noted in her September 2014 report to the UN General Assembly: “disturbing reports of deaths in camps owing to lack of access to emergency medical assistance and owing to preventable, chronic or pregnancy-related conditions.”

While the crisis is most acute in the camps, it is important to note that around 800,000 Rohingya living outside the camps are also in urgent need of assistance. In some areas the rates of malnutrition are over 20 per cent and the provision of health services is almost non-existent. Their conditions are similarly dire. Many are barred from leaving their villages. Unable to pursue education or employment, the future looks bleak.

It is essential also that humanitarian aid is not only provided to the Rohingya, but also to all those in need of assistance. Rakhine State is the second poorest state in Burma, where 44 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line – almost twenty per cent more than the average in most parts of Burma.

Consequently, many Rohingyas are desperate to leave the country. About 300,000 members of the group are believed to have crossed into neighboring Bangladesh. But there, too, survival is a struggle.

Refugees International's Sarnata Reynolds explained that Bangladesh hopes that by keeping life difficult for the refugees, "at some point they will just give up and leave." Only 30,000 Rohingyas are officially registered in the country as refugees and live in UN-supported camps, Reynolds said. The others live in constant fear of deportation, often relying on the registered refugees for essential supplies.

The Rohingyas thus have become an easy prey for smugglers trying to fill boats trafficking migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh to countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Smugglers typically charge about $2,000 per journey to Malaysia, the AP notes -- forcing the migrants to sell everything they have. Some traffickers have been accused of holding refugees in detention camps in Thailand until families pay a ransom to secure their release. Faced with a recent crackdown on smuggling networks by Thai authorities, traffickers often abandon their ships before reaching land in order to avoid detection.

Many of the refugees undertaking the journey to Malaysia are Rohingyas from Myanmar, a group facing so much discrimination and persecution that its members are willing to undertake the treacherous trip. These discrimination and persecution are the root cause of the crisis, which has been instrumental in pushing thousands to flee by boat with the hopes of reaching Malaysia. Tomás Ojea Quintana, a former UN special rapporteur on human rights for Myanmar, even said that the systematic violence against the group may amount to crimes against humanity.

Thus, the US State Department lambasted Burma for failing to address the root cause of the crisis, which observers say stems largely from the government’s refusal to recognize the Muslim minority as lawful citizens.

“What needs to change here is that the Rohingya need to feel welcome in the country of their birth, in the country of their parents’ birth, of their grandparents’ birth,” “They need to be treated as citizens with dignity and human rights,” Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor, told CNN during an interview on Tuesday.

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