Towards a new boat people crisis

A new `boat people; looms high. Photo--AFP
A new `boat people; looms high. Photo--AFP

Remember the boat people crisis or the Andaman Sea crisis in 2015? A large number of people from at least 40 districts along with Rohingya attempted to migrate to Malaysia through the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. The whole world was shocked when the mass graves were discovered in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in May 2015. People around the world came to know about this humanitarian crisis for the first time. No one knows exactly how many died in the transit camps or at sea that time. More significantly, the discovery of mass graves of the victims of trafficking to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia has awakened human conscience to think about the practice of modern-day slavery through trafficking.

There are four types of people who are catergorised by the term “boat people”. They are Bangladesh nationals, registered camp people (Rohingya), undocumented nationals ( Rohingya), and Rohingya from Myanmar who use Bangladesh as a transit. Apart from the Bangladeshi nationals, most of the boat people are Rohingyas who are from Myanmar. So it is evident that Rohingya people are most vulnerable for human trafficking. Rohingya people are vulnerable economically and don’t have much employment opportunities. Frustrated, and having little knowledge about the perils of illegal sea voyages, they fall prey to human traffickers.

The trafficking and smuggling of Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Malaysia via Thailand are not new phenomena. There is a strong underground economy incentivising the trade of Rohingya persons. As a Muslim country with a strong economy, work opportunities, and an established Rohingya community, Malaysia is a primary destination for Rohingya refugees. As a result, large-scale transnational criminal syndicates focusing on routes from Myanmar and Bangladesh have emerged in the last 10 years, preying on the desperation of Rohingya in Myanmar who face serious abuses and are being forced to flee their homes.

There is fear of another massive humanitarian crisis as some 740,000 Rohingya Muslims fled a brutal military clampdown in Myanmar since August 2017 and arrived in Bangladesh to join another 300,000 already living in the refugee camps. Local authorities fear another exodus is looming, as traffickers return to old tricks to lure vulnerable refugees onto ships. Thousands of people in the Rohingya refugee camps are at risk of human trafficking according to IOM, the UN migration agency.

Bangladeshi authorities have stopped over 300 Rohingya this year alone from attempting such perilous boat journeys on rickety fishing boats.

We have learned from recent news that 23 of the rescued teenage Rohingya girls were brought from refugee camps to the capital Dhaka by the human traffickers. They were to be sent to Malaysia by air. The girls were promised employment in Malaysia.

Traffickers are also managing false passports for this purpose. This is alarming for the upcoming days. Traffickers are becoming active, targeting the new people in the camp. They are not only using maritime routes but also air routes for this crime. The new people of the camp are desperate to go out. Traffickers are taking this opportunity. People are lured to migrate for better livelihood and trapped by the unscrupulous agents. This process doesn’t need legal documents so the aspirants find it the easiest way to go to their dreamland.

* This writer is a migrant rights activist.  She can be contacted at [email protected]