Human bones discovered in human trafficking jungle camps.
Fishermen outfitting their boats for human cargo instead of fish.
Ransoms and pending trade embargoes.
Floating detention centres filled with starving masses.
What on earth is happening to the Rohingya people in Malaysia and Thailand?
Some issues are easily understood by reading an article or two, but when it comes to the Rohingya migrant crisis, my attempts to get a quick overview have not sufficed. In recent weeks I’ve had to dive deeper into the issue, and one thing I can say for sure is that I’m constantly amazed and dismayed at the creativity people use to exploit other people.
My goal here is to provide a start-to-finish overview of what you need to know about a very vulnerable group of people known as the Rohingya, and how exploitation can shift forms on the heels of profit-chasing traffickers.
Who are the Rohingya and why are they easy to exploit?
Picture this: your great grandparents come to Canada or the US at the turn of the century, settling in the area in which you now live. Generations of your family have lived here and you know nothing else. One day, the government passes a law that denies you exist, stripping you of access to healthcare, your right to get a passport, or any other benefit that comes with being a citizen. You become the target of violence, forcing you to leave your house behind and live in a makeshift camp with others who have been denied citizenship.
You are stateless. You have no opportunities at home, but no other country wants you either.
This is the reality for the Rohingya people.
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group currently living in Burma (Myanmar), but are not recognized as Burmese citizens by the government. Some historians claim they’re indigenous to Burma, while others say they originated from the Bengal region and settled in Burma about a century ago.
Since the Burmese Nationality Law was enacted in 1982, the government has denied the existence of the Rohingya, stripping them of citizenship despite having lived there for multiple generations.
“Because of that law, today more than 1.3 million Rohingya are not citizens of Burma and are denied the right to have food, denied the right to have medical treatment, denied the right to have movement, denied the right to have children, denied the right to have education … [it leads to] state-sponsored violence against them [like] burning down their houses and pushing them to the camps.”
As a result of this violent discrimination, thousands of Rohingyas are fleeing to Malaysia by sea, hoping to find peace and job opportunities. But traffickers have taken note of this trend, intercepting boats and paying smugglers in exchange for the migrants, hijacking all plans for a better life.
What happens in the human trafficking jungle camps?
Some of the migrants are brought to camps in the jungle, where they are kept and tortured until a ransom is given for their release. Rohingya men, women, and children are told to call their families with the ransom request, and those whose families are unable to pay are often killed in the camp or sold into slavery. Considering that the Rohingyas back home in Burma don’t have much money to begin with, paying a ransom between $1,200 and $1,800 for their loved one is often impossible.
“She left home one morning to visit a neighbour and never came back…they told me they would kick her off the top of a mountain.”
In the last few months, several of these jungle camps, along with human remains, have been discovered in Thailand and Malaysia, mounting international pressure for both countries to crack down on traffickers.
How is the fishing industry connected to this?
Some of the migrants are sold onto fishing boats, where they are used as slave labour. But due to pollution and unsustainable fishing practices, there are fewer and fewer fish to be caught, making it increasingly difficult for fishermen to make money. In recent years, a new opportunity for fishermen has emerged. It involves outfitting their boats to hold people instead of fish, and pays a whole lot more.
So what does this look like?
Traffickers have learned that jungle camps can be cumbersome to operate undetected, especially with growing international attention. In addition to this, some migrants have also managed to escape the camps, resulting in lost revenue for their captors. What’s a surefire way to prevent people from escaping from a ransom camp?
Surround it with water.
Traffickers are converting ships into massive floating camps, detaining up to 2,000 victims at a time in international waters. As is usually the case, women and girls experience an added layer of exploitation, many of them forced to have sex with the men running the ship. Those who die from lack of food, sickness, or violence are simply thrown overboard, and chances of escape are essentially zero.
“I spent 14 days on this ship. Three days after we were transferred, three smugglers arrived from Malaysia and boarded our ship. They carried mobile phones. They first asked who had phone numbers and, one by one, we started calling our relatives. Those [who did not provide] phone numbers were beaten.”
“[The ship contained] six storeys in total: three above deck, three below. The men and women were separated.”
The fishermen that used to catch fish now make three times more money by using their small boats as lookouts for the large vessels. They also transport new victims onto them and bring some of the dead bodies back out, requiring them to outfit their boats for human cargo instead of fish. And as the European Union threatens a trade ban if Thailand doesn’t clean up its fishing industry, a growing number of fishermen are casting aside their nets and catching human beings instead.
Meet some of the survivors and hear from regional experts here:
While the governments of Malaysia and Thailand must absolutely crack down on traffickers, the Government of Burma has a unique opportunity to address the root cause of this entire operation. State-sanctioned racism is causing thousands of vulnerable people to be exploited, and it’s time for the Burmese government to amend or repeal the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law.
October 2017 update:
- VOA News – Myanmar: Nearly 400 Dead in Rakhine Violence, Homes Burned
- National Post – ‘I have lost everything’: Fleeing Rohingya Muslims watch as homes burn in Myanmar
If you’d like to support efforts to end this abuse, Fortify Rights is an organization that has worked closely with Rohingya communities in Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, and Malaysia for several years. Their mandate is to investigate and document abuses, provide technical support to local human rights defenders, engage governments, abusers, and news media, and ultimately strengthen local responses to abuses via workshops, legal research etc.
Donations help Fortify Rights to uncover and expose abuses against Rohingya, and to provide trainings in human rights law and documentation for Rohingya human rights defenders. This is a critical piece in the effort to elevate the worth of the Rohingya people, and promoting human worth is integral to the fight against human trafficking.
If what you’ve learned in this post resonates with you, please consider supporting Fortify Rights as they press ahead in their life-saving work.