5 things to know about human trafficking in South-east Asia

Migrants believed to be Rohingya resting inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 11, 2015. -- PHOTO: RETUERS
Migrants believed to be Rohingya resting inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 11, 2015. -- PHOTO: RETUERS

There has been an increased influx of boat people arriving in Malaysia and Indonesia after Thailand announced a crackdown on people smuggling.

Most of the boat people are believed to be from the Rohingya ethnic Muslim minority group in Myanmar.

Here's a quick look at the problem of human trafficking in South-east Asia:

1. What are the numbers?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says an estimated 25,000 people fled Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat in the first quarter of this year, twice the number of last year. An estimated total of 53,000 left in 2014, braving the sea crossing to southern Thailand, with many headed for Malaysia and beyond.

Hundreds die at sea every year. Of those who survive, many fall into the hands of people traffickers in Thailand which has become a hub for the illegal trade. Dozens of shallow graves believed to belong to Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants have been unearthed in southern Thailand since early May.

2. Who are the Rohingya?

Rohingya are a stateless Muslim ethnic group viewed by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. They are not officially recognised in Myanmar, partly owing to a 1982 law stipulating that minorities must prove they lived in Myanmar prior to 1823 - before the first Anglo-Burmese war - to obtain nationality. Many Rohingya say their people were in Myanmar long before then, but while there have been suggestions from the authorities that citizenship could be granted to those with a longstanding link to the country, proving Myanmar heritage will be difficult.

Rohingya are met with hostility by many in majority Buddhist Myanmar who view them as illegal immigrants and refer to them as "Bengali".

More than 1.3 million Rohingya live in Myanmar, according to the government. Most live in impoverished western Rakhine state. There are also around 300,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh's southern coastal district bordering Myanmar, the vast majority of whom have fled Myanmar in recent decades. Bangladesh recognises only a small percentage of them as refugees and regularly turns back those trying to cross the border.

3. Why are they fleeing?

Fierce communal violence between Buddhists and Rohingya in Rakhine in 2012 left some 200 dead and tens of thousands - many of them Rohingya - trapped in squalid camps with dire conditions.

Rights groups say many of the unregistered Rohingya in Bangladesh also lack access to basic healthcare and are on the verge of starvation, leaving them as easy targets for human traffickers.

4. How do they end up in camps in Thailand?

Their journey begins in Myanmar or Bangladesh. Most typically an onshore broker deceives the Rohingya to think that they will be taken directly to Malaysia for the equivalent of US$100 to US$200. They board ships operated by transnational criminal syndicates, and they are packed in tightly, like cattle. Some people spend weeks at sea before the boat departs, waiting for an occupancy that far exceeds anything that would be considered humane.

Throughout the journey, they are denied adequate food, water and space, and subjected to severe beatings, and sometimes killings. The boats travel to Thai waters where the human cargo is transported to a makeshift jungle camp onshore, where again they are forced to live in cramped conditions.

In some cases, corrupt Thai authorities intercepted these "shipments" and detained the Rohingya, only to later sell them to traffickers.

There is reportedly an enormous number of human trafficking camps in Thailand over the last three years. In recent weeks, a network of secret jungle camps have been found in Songkhla province. Tens of bodies in various states of decay were found, with many pulled from shallow graves.

5. What is Thailand doing to curb human trafficking?

On May 6, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha gave a 10-day deadline for a complete scrutiny of all areas for possible detention camps and graves related to trafficked migrants. Local officials from village heads to district chiefs were told to not only search for signs of Rohingya trafficking, such as detention camps and graves, but also other crimes ranging from land encroachment, illegal or unregulated fishing to the drug trade.

Thai authorities have issued arrest warrants for local officials, politicians, police officers and villagers involved in the human smuggling trade.


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