Malaysia, Thailand, and the Trafficking of the Rohingyas

30 May, 2014    ·   4482

Roomana Hukil analyses the alarming rise and inadequate data of the trafficking of Rohingya people in Malaysia and Thailand

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer
Recent reports indicate a surge in the trafficking and abuse of the Rohingya migrants/refugees from within Malaysia and Thailand. Both countries have a trafficking network that is operational on a far greater scale than currently acknowledged of by the authorities. While both countries refuse to provide a legal refugee status to the Rohingya people, they are permitted to stay via UN registration. The Thai government despite being officially committed to combating human trafficking in the country, denies the Rohingyas as victims of trafficking. The rising numbers of trafficking cases have threatened to undermine their anti-human trafficking record. More so, both states are currently at the risk of being downgraded from a Tier 2 stature to Tier 3, by the US State Department in its upcoming Trafficking in Person's (TIP) Report. 

Are the Rohingya Being Trafficked?
In the 2013, Thailand submitted its human trafficking report that had no mention of the trafficking of the Rohingyas. It stated that the Rohingya question is an issue of human smuggling and not trafficking. The terms smuggling and trafficking have differing meanings, wherein the smuggling takes place with consent and in trafficking, the victims are moved by persuasion and/or deception. This has given leeway to Thailand, which is currently scrambling to combat the growing menace of the rising instances of trafficking cases. According to the report, there were 225 convictions for human trafficking in 2013 as opposed to 49 in 2012. The report also stated that there were 1020 trafficking victims in 2013, as compared to 592 in 2012. Of this, 141 victims were said to be from Myanmar. However, no one was identified as a Rohingya.

Thailand aims to avoid being downgraded to Tier 3 – the lowest stature in the US State Department’s TIP Report – because a Tier 3 ranking would place Thailand alongside North Korea and the Central African Republic – that are considered the world’s worst human trafficking hubs. Being ranked as a Tier 3 country, Thailand would run the risk of inviting sanctions from the US and embarrassment, given how it’s lobbying for a non-permanent position in the UN Security Council. Thailand claims it has undertaken maximum effort to avoid repercussions. It aims to incorporate changes in its human trafficking record before June 2014.

There is no official data available on the total number of Rohingyas in Thailand and Malaysia but unconfirmed sources estimate that there are approximately 60,000 Rohingya people residing in these countries. The lack of reliable data on the number of Rohingyas highlights their invisibility and an absence of protection for them. Prior to 2009, most Rohingyas were allowed to start businesses and settle among the Thai Muslim community. However, post 2009, this permission was suspended, and failure to provide substantial documents led to the arrests of Rohingya people; and these arrest either result in indefinite detention or a handover to human traffickers.

Authorities support the human traffickers in driving the Rohingya out of the country because of the overwhelming people in the refugee camps in these countries. These countries find it difficult to accommodate the tens of thousands of Rohingya asylum-seekers in their territories, and the easier way out is to send (and sometimes sell) them to human traffickers. Dr Dmitrina Petrova from the Equal Rights Trust pointed out that “it is more humane to release the Rohingya to the traffickers than to deport them back to Myanmar or keep them in indefinite detention camps.” Thailand and Malaysia do not put a cap on their detention cells. This leads to break outs and/or the release of the Rohingya to human traffickers.

What are the Rohingya Being Trafficked Into?
There is little information that reveals the plight of the Rohingya after being trafficked. Human rights observers have claimed that the trafficking of the Rohingya is underway in Thailand and Malaysia. But details about the victims’ states-of-affairs post-trafficking, is insufficient. This is alarming because Rohingya migrants include women and children.

Some accounts have exposed that the Rohingyas are mostly used for extortion. They are only allowed to leave upon payment of ransom by their relatives. Given the inadequacies in the official data/records on the plight of these people, the reports that surface pit the percentage of Rohingyas forced into labour, prostitution and/or other illegal activities as low; but the actual numbers are likely to be much higher. However, there are reports of serious physical and sexual abuse of the Rohingya by official authorities such as the Thai police. Wakar Uddin of the Arakan Rohingya Union stated that, “Some Rohingya women and minors have been sold to sex traders in southern Thailand.”

Last year’s TIP Report documented the failure of the Thai and Malaysian government to “adequately regulate brokers, reduce the high costs associated with registration, or allow registered migrants to change employers.” Although both countries claim to have made progress on this front, there has been no substantial change in the system over the course of the previous year. At best, the governments continue to be in the trafficking of migrant workers from neighbouring countries to provide inexpensive labour for export industries.