On Sunday, two boats carrying 500 Rohingya floated ashore in Aceh, Indonesia. One of the boats was packed with 430 people. The incident is the latest in a crisis that has swept the region and has revealed a widespread human trafficking network of onshore and offshore camps holding thousands of people.
On 1 May police uncovered a mass grave in Thailand's south. It contained 26 bodies of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Since then, shallow graves have been uncovered across Songkhla province in southern Thailand near the Malaysian border. Advocacy groups warn that recent discoveries many only be the tip of the iceberg.
A Rohingya refugee camp in Myanmar. (Flickr/European Commission.)
Many of the dead are from the long-persecuted Rohingya communities in Myanmar and Bangladesh; over 100,000 have been forced into camps in Myanmar since 2012. An estimated 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers' boats in the first three months of the year, according to the UNHCR. That's almost double the figure from the same time last year.
Well-established trafficking networks have taken advantage of the immense demand, smuggling people to southern Thailand and Malaysia. After the initial voyage from Bangladesh or Myanmar, the traffickers move the migrants into jungle camps or islands, or onto large holding boats of up to 1000 people, where they wait for family members to pay a ransom for their release. If family don't pay, they're sold to the highest bidder, often into sex slavery or slavery on fishing trawlers (see the Environmental Justice Foundation's Slavery at Sea report).
Hundreds have died in the squalid conditions on these boats this year alone, according to the UNHCR, leading to them being termed 'offshore camps'. At least one survivor spent 62 days on smugglers' boats in conditions he compared to a graveyard.
Widespread abuse has been reported in camps onshore (Thai authorities believe 60 jungle 'death camps' may be in operation), on boats and on 45 islands camps. Executions of those trying to escape, and the murder of informants, have been reported.
The Thai junta has cracked down on the traffickers with arrests and the rotation of a handful of corrupt officials out of the southern provinces. But this is believed to have scared the traffickers from coming ashore. The fear now is that boats parked off the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia, which Chris Lewa of The Arakan Project estimates may hold 7-8,000 people, start moving further into international waters. As mobile phones drop out of range, the cargo lose contact with those onshore, leaving few means to bargain for release. Traffickers, scared of the consequences if law-enforcement agencies intercept the boats, may then begin tossing bodies overboard.
Yet the price of doing nothing is equally grim.
Trafficking networks have been well established across the Southeast Asia for decades. The internal flows of people, both smuggled and trafficked*, have deep roots in the region as people seek new opportunities in better economies, or try to escape persecution.
Deeply embedded corruption has made the current trafficking crisis possible. Countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia have been happy to see the boats exit their jurisdictions and have often helped them leave. Other navies and coastguards have reportedly been directly complicit in the movement of people, receiving bribes from traffickers (see here and here). This has been supported further up the food chain by what HRW's deputy director Phil Robertson calls a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. Matthew Smith from Fortify Rights, a Bangkok-based advocacy group, goes further, saying that Thai authorities have 'rescued' Rohingya and then later returned them to traffickers.
The excellent coverage of the plight of the Rohingya and these human trafficking rings by journalists Jason Szep and Andrew Marshall won them last year's Pulitzer prize. But sadly, little has been done, despite the issue having long been reported.
What needs to happen now is the immediate and regionally coordinated rescue of the boat loads of people in desperate conditions. Secondly, in order to break up the transnational criminal networks that lead these trafficking rings, a serious and deep-rooted excision of corruption across the region is required. Better monitoring of migration across the region is also urgently needed; currently, small NGOs (not national governments or regional organisations) are collecting the data. That makes understanding the extent of the problem far more difficult. And lastly, the region needs to address the root cause of this surge in human trafficking, the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
*'Smuggling' is the consensual movement of people across borders; 'trafficking' refers to the movement of people against their will and often sold into some form of slavery.