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Ships to Nowhere: The Brutal Trafficking of Rohingya Refugees


March 15 marked the beginning of a landmark human-trafficking trial in Thailand in which 92 defendants are charged with establishing a transnational trafficking network to smuggle refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar into Malaysia. Authorities discovered the network last year when a mass grave containing 36 bodies was unearthed in southern Thailand. The outfit is implicated in widespread kidnappings and killings in the current trial, the results of which may shed light on the lucrative shadow-industry of refugee smuggling and slavery across Southeast Asia.

The human-trafficking networks in the region are remarkably well-organized and ruthless, and this particular cartel was especially infamous for the scale and brutality of its operations. The support of high-ranking army officials, including Lieutenant-General Manas Kongpaen, allowed its members to act with exceptional impunity. Its victims, primarily persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, were forced on to rickety and overcrowded ships that set sail south from the Bay of Bengal on a notoriously perilous journey: In 2015 alone, an estimated 370 refugees died from starvation, disease and abuse before reaching land. Moreover, instead of being released when they reached the Thai-Malaysian border, the refugees were held captive in inhumane detainment camps in the jungles. The traffickers then demanded ransoms from the refugees’ families, threatening to kill or enslave those whose relatives were unable to pay.

Under fire from the United States and international humanitarian organizations, the Thai government has committed to expediting the trial and reaching a verdict by the end of the year. An accelerated verdict, however, is not enough to guarantee justice or tackle the underlying societal problem. The trial itself has been plagued by questions regarding its legitimacy and comprehensiveness. Although 153 arrest warrants were released, the government is only pressing charges against 92 defendants, sparking concerns that many traffickers have managed to evade punishment. International organizations have also cast doubts over the safety of over 300 Rohingya refugees serving as witnesses in the case; many of these witnesses were placed in government shelters for the duration of the trial, but some have already disappeared. Moreover, the trial should not be heralded as a one-stop solution to the greater issue of human trafficking in the region — despite the size and brutality of this operation, it was just one of many human-trafficking rings operating in the area.

The traffickers have exploited the distinctively dire situation of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The ethnic group has long been persecuted for speaking a little-known Bengali dialect and practicing Islam in the Buddhist-majority country. The Rohingya originally arrived in Myanmar from the neighboring country of Bangladesh, but have lived in Myanmar for generations. There are approximately one million Rohingya living in the country, making up 2 percent of the nation’s population, and yet the vast majority of these people have been forced to live in ghetto-like conditions in the poverty-stricken, northwestern state of Rakhine. With little hope for employment or upward mobility, many have been repressed and imprisoned in internment camps for over thirty years. Based on these apartheid-like conditions, human rights organizations like Amnesty International consider the Rohingya the “most persecuted refugees in the world.”

Yet the Rohingya are not just fleeing persecution; they also seek to escape the obliteration of their identity. Under Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, Rohingya are not granted citizenship. They are instead classified as Bengali immigrants, allowing for the possibility of deportation. To be considered citizens, these “immigrants” are asked to prove that they have lived in Myanmar for 60 years, which is often impossible given that the Rohingya initially crossed the border into Myanmar without paperwork and were subsequently denied these documents. Furthermore, the Myanmar government has created a hierarchy of citizenship that makes the Rohingya that have been able to obtain non-immigrant citizen status “associate” (or second-class) citizens without voting rights. Therefore, deprived of nationality and unable to cross borders legally to escape persecution, the Rohingya are forced to rely on traffickers.

The issue has come under the spotlight since anti-Rohingya violence spiked in 2012. After the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman by a Rohingya in Rakhine, the state’s dominant Buddhist population retaliated by massacring approximately 200 Rohingya Muslims. The violence then escalated in 2013, leading to a deadly humanitarian crisis. In fact, state forces sent to defuse tensions have been implicated in crimes against the Rohingya, to the extent that Human Rights Watch has accused the government of committing ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This crisis has pushed many Rohingya to flee to the ostensible safety of Malaysia via Thailand, leaving themselves at the mercy of traffickers. The Myanmar government has not undertaken any effort to eliminate trafficking, tacitly perpetuating the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from the nation with their discriminatory policies and lenient treatment of traffickers.

However, the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar is only the beginning of the problem since, as the recent trial against the Thai trafficking ring has shown, the Rohingya people are further victimized by the barbaric conditions in ships and border camps. Many survivors of these horrific journeys have spoken out against the merciless behavior of the traffickers: The smugglers are reported to use torture and abuse to subdue the captive refugees while refugees are malnourished and prone to disease from the lack of hygiene in camps.

It is common for the traffickers to extort money from the asylum seekers at camps and on ships as well. They often demand exorbitant fees of around $1,200 for transportation to Malaysia alone, and then extract even more by threatening the refugees with abuse or death. Safe arrival in Malaysia is also not guaranteed: Previously, traffickers have left refugees stranded off the coasts of Indonesia or Malaysia and last May, thousands of refugees were abandoned on the high seas in flimsy wooden boats with limited food and water — the death toll from the incident remains unknown.

And refugees’ troubles don’t end even if they reach their destination safely: although the refugees see Malaysia as a safe haven with opportunities for prosperity and equality, the reality of their reception often fails to meet the expectation. Over 75,000 Rohingya refugees currently live in Malaysia, but they have been relegated to a marginalized existence on the fringes of Malaysian society. As refugees, they are given little recognition or government support: They are unable to register for government schooling or obtain legal jobs, forcing them into subsistence living once again. In particular, the restrictions on education are an egregious violation of the Convention on the Rights of a Child, which protects children against discrimination regardless of immigration status. There are also processing lags at the UN office in Kuala Lumpur, delaying the distribution of refugee accreditation and identification cards needed for job applications, which further sidelines Rohingya refugees from legitimate recognition in Malaysia.

Crucially, in the last year, Malaysia’s response to Rohingya refugees has become even more alarming. The government has taken an exclusionary approach, publicly announcing that the refugees should be “turned back” and returned to their country. The country’s deputy prime minister even claimed that Malaysia has no responsibility to rescue asylum seekers stranded off its coast unless their boat was capsizing. While Malaysia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and is therefore not obligated to accept all asylum seekers, its recent turnaround violates the principle of non-refoulement, or not returning refugees to the country of their persecution, which can be argued to be customary international law. Since last May, several Malaysian politicians have made incendiary statements against signing the Refugee Convention to prevent a greater influx of Rohingya; one minister even questioned the refugees’ reasons for fleeing to Malaysia and classified them as “threats” to local businesses. If these trends continue in one of the largest safe havens for the Rohingya in the region, their very existence is likely to come under exceedingly greater risk.

Thus far, the global response has been limited and misguided. While the plight of the Rohingya has come into the media spotlight recently, there has been little coordinated effort to mitigate the crisis. The focus of the international humanitarian community has revolved around assigning blame and censuring the oppressive Myanmar government. Many activists and politicians have called for Myanmar to institute full and equal citizenship for the Rohingya. While this may certainly be the ideal solution, the rhetoric has distracted from the ongoing and immediate consequences of widespread trafficking and exploitation in the region. The reality of this problem extends further than within the borders of Myanmar, which means that other Southeast Asian states must cooperate to find a solution for what is rapidly becoming a regional crisis.

The current trial in Thailand implies that there is some hope for Rohingya who have managed to survive persecution in Myanmar or refugees who have survived their hazardous journey to Malaysia. The Thai government is cracking down on trafficking rings that operate on its borders after a US government report named Thailand one of the worst countries in the world for human trafficking. The UN and EU have also reported that the flow of Rohingya refugees out of Myanmar has slowed since the election of a new government, as many Rohingya are waiting to judge the policy platform of the newly-elected regime. But unless there is greater security and support for Rohingya in Myanmar and increased rehabilitation of these refugees across Southeast Asia, the Rohingya refugee crisis will continue to be one of the greatest and most overlooked humanitarian disasters of our time.

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Rohingya Exodus