Incident reports of Rohingya Refugees being trafficked or smuggled have concerningly increased last month, as multiple news sources from surrounding countries including Thailand and Malaysia announce respective crackdowns. Police General Damrongsak Kittiprapas, Thailand’s deputy national police chief, stated last month that dozens of accused Thai officers were prosecuted for their implication in human trafficking on the Thai-Myanmar border, with 33 officials of various ranks involved.
Also, Thai police announced that they have arrested 78 suspected smugglers – mostly Thais – who were involved in smuggling more than 260 migrant workers from Myanmar and other neighbouring countries. On the 8th, Yangon police in Myanmar uncovered another group of 100 Rohingyas huddled together and hiding in a multi-story house for months. Last Sunday, 13 Rohingya girls in Dhaka who were promised false jobs were rescued.
Unfortunately, these trafficking incidents are not new findings. The Myanmar military’s brutal crackdowns on the Rohingya Muslims that have displaced over 1 million since 2017, have powered an inexorable market for human traffickers. In 2018, the UN Migration agency reported that young Rohingya girls in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar are
“sold into forced labour, accounting for the largest group trafficking of victims.”
This trafficking by criminal gangs forms only a part of the sex trade of Rohingya Refugees. The chain functions as far as India and Nepal, according to Amnesty International. Trafficking is on the rise in the sprawling 6000-acre camps holding at least 900,000 Rohingya who have extremely limited access to basic health and educational services. Police records from Bangladesh report that 529 Rohingya were rescued from trafficking last year in camps near Cox’s Bazar alone.
Already exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous domestic and international unsettlement further cloud the situation for Rohingya Refugees. With Myanmar’s declared state of emergency and the military in complete control of the country, the refugees are fearful of returning to a country now under a military regime. Khin Maung, head of the Rohingya Youth Association in Cox’s Bazar, told The Associated Press: “The military killed us, raped our sisters and mothers, torched our villages. How is it possible for us to stay safe under their control?”
Secondly, the recent ongoing forced relocations of the Refugees from Cox’s Bazar to the perilous island of Bhasan Char is another compounding factor heightening incentive and desperation for Refugees to pay smugglers ruinously-expensive fees, risk extremely perilous routes, and endure exploitation and abuse.
Thirdly, the discriminatory rhetoric and xenophobia against Refugees in neighbouring countries have replaced formerly-welcoming attitudes, indicating the complicating situation for host countries. Malaysia’s Health Director-General Mohd Noor Hisham Abdullah confirmed that the refugees’ “poor living conditions are blamed for the widespread disease.” In Thailand, people pin the rising number of Covid cases on migrant workers from Myanmar. As global refugee flows are at the highest levels in history, and with the Refugees’ situation only growing in desperation from here, they grow more vulnerable to traffickers capitalizing on their needs.
Awareness programs and education may be the first line of defense against false promises of a better life. However, systemic issues compound the dilemma – the lack of human resources, the congested situation in the camps, victims fearing retributive violence from their exploiters, and ineffective legal protection systems. As conflict always builds profitable situations for traffickers, all of these are only exacerbated in crisis settings where trafficking groups can operate with impunity.
The nexus between conflict-induced migration and increased rates of human trafficking undoubtedly feed on each other. This dilemma is in urgent need of new, effective approaches. Refugees in desperate situations will see little incentive to refuse any offers or chances to build a better life until the international community and governments uphold their commitments. Revising punitive immigration policies, revamping inefficient bureaucracy, and overhauling ineffective law enforcement systems are steps they must actively take to create environments in which Refugees’ humanities will be honoured.
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