Smugglers 'seeking new Malaysia routes'

BANGKOK • People smugglers are exploring new routes to Malaysia after a crackdown on trafficking in Thailand with no large migrant boat departures from Myanmar and Bangladesh in nearly six months, aid agencies said.

Rising numbers of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution were setting off from Myanmar's northern Rakhine state and Bangladesh in small boats and transferring to larger boats that could carry more than 1,000 people each.

But a Thai crackdown on human traffickers in May halted journeys by large boats across the Bay of Bengal to Thailand and Malaysia, with activists only hearing unconfirmed rumours of a few small boats.

But aid agencies fear the halt in sea crossings does not indicate an end to people trafficking but means smuggling gangs are exploring new routes.

"We don't see new ones, but we know different routes are being studied so they don't have to be moved by boat," said Ms Chris Lewa, founder of the Arakan Project, a rights project focusing on the Rohingya.

"Some boats may leave, but there is definitely a strong impact of the Thai crackdown... The kind of movement and recruitment happening last year is not happening this year. It's a lot more clandestine." Ms Lewa said new routes could be by air or overland and aid workers were now monitoring the area to identify the shift.

Rohingya Muslims have long been fleeing Myanmar's western Rakhine state, where they are loathed by the Buddhist majority. Communal violence is prevalent and many of the minority live in bleak camps with restrictions over employment and travel.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2015, with the headline 'Smugglers 'seeking new Malaysia routes''. Print Edition | Subscribe