After waves of trafficking of both the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis via the sea in 2015, the trend waned for the next few years. But following the recent boat capsize in the Bay of Bengal that left 21 Rohingyas dead, analysts fear that transnational human trafficking is reviving in this region. In the light of the recent boat capsize, The Business Standard's Masum Billah spoke to Asif Munier, a migration and displacement specialist.
TBS: Do you see the recent boat capsize that killed 21 Rohingyas as a growing trend or an isolated incident?
AM: This is a trend for both Bangladeshis and the Rohingyas. The pattern of trafficking is different depending on whether the victims are the Bangladeshis or Rohingyas, but trafficking is a trend for both.
For Bangladeshis, the government has not succeeded in building trust in regular migration through formal and legal channels.
The issues with Rohingyas, however, are different. For them, it is about existence, dignity and human rights. With time, Bangladeshis are understandably less hospitable to Rohingyas. Returning to Myanmar does not seem to be materialising soon either. Thus a sense of despair compels them to seek alternatives to camp life, even by desperate measures.
At the same time, our borders remain porous with sometimes poor surveillance. So, not only in Cox's Bazar but also on other borders, human traffickers and smugglers as well as drug traffickers continue to flourish in illegal trade of humans and goods.
As for Bangladeshis, they could not rely on the channels of regular migration on a large scale. They seem to believe that the irregular ways would be easier. The Rohingyas, on the other hand, do not see a future in Bangladesh.
In both cases, the system is at fault.
In case of the Rohingyas, they have neither been well-informed and advised about irregular movement, nor given dignified ways to live beyond assisting in relief operations.
In such circumstances, human trafficking by boat is bound to take place. Thanks to the media, border forces and the local administrations, some became survivors of trafficking and the wider public got to know about them.
But unfortunately, such issues gradually fade away as sufficient prevention mechanisms have not been established. The evil network of traffickers and smugglers takes advantage of such an ineffective system.
TBS: Some analysts fear that the latest capsize is the revival of transnational human trafficking. What is your observation?
AM: Yes, it could be, but there needs to be well-informed research or investigation into the trends of the last five years.
The rescue of the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, and the capture of a few human traffickers had a massive media coverage in 2015. It did not possibly take place in 2016. But I think since 2017 and specially during the winter and spring, when the sea is calmer, some sporadic attempts at human trafficking and smuggling did take place and were even successful.
With the large influx of Rohingyas in late 2017 – who were traumatised by a large-scale ethnic cleansing in Myanmar – they indeed needed time for physical and psychological stability.
Now, in late 2019 and early 2020, when they are more settled in, the Rohingyas may be considering venturing into seas towards countries like Thailand. Those who lost hope of going back to Myanmar may seek a more permanent migration, even though it is irregular.
The growing resentment of the locals might also be a reason for the large number of Rohingyas considering a move. We tend to forget that Rohingyas are indeed victims of extreme violation of human rights.
However, in case of such unforeseen hostilities, the Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies and the legal system will always prioritise the locals. This creates a perception among the Rohingyas that they are vulnerable.
All these factors could trigger the revival of transnational trafficking across the sea but we should also remember that trafficking might never have stopped altogether. Usual steps are immediate – rescuing the victims, take on-the-ground traffickers in custody or interrogation, and file a few cases against them.
But the prosecution rate is low, while there is no significant progress in legal action against drug lords and human trafficking kings. The known masterminds are still very much active.
TBS: Why do the Rohingyas make take on such an arduous task of going to Malaysia? What lures them in the first place?
AM: The Rohingyas indeed have nothing to lose. They have seen their loved ones brutally killed in Myanmar. The women and children are more vulnerable. Many are without spouses as they have either been separated or killed in Myanmar. What condition could be more serious than that?
There are some NGOs in Malaysia who work for the betterment of migrant workers. Some Bangladeshis who need support are assisted by these NGOs. For the Rohingyas who are already in Malaysia, its government does consider them asylum seekers in Malaysia under the UNHCR jurisdiction.
These Rohingyas in Malaysia are expected eventually to get refugee status through the proper process. This might also compel them to accept being trafficked.
TBS: Why did not Bangladesh recognise the Rohingyas as refugees?
AM: Bangladesh has not signed the UN refugee convention. So, it is not compelled to give refugee status to the Rohingyas.
Instead, the government has prepared their database and identity cards.
TBS: Why is recognition as refugees important?
AM: Recognising the Rohingyas as refugees is very important as far as their rights are concerned. If the refugees want to seek asylum, recognition of their refugee status is important. Anyone can seek asylum as a refugee in any country if he or she can prove that they are being tortured in his own country. The refugee status will give them access to services beyond the camp facilities.
The Malaysian government in cooperation with the UNHCR is in the process of giving refugee status gradually. So, the Rohingyas in Bangladesh want to go to Malaysia by whatever means possible in order to at least ensure their rights and protection under the international convention as refugees.
TBS: Why do so many women and children also take part in such perilous journeys?
AM: The women and children are more vulnerable in human trafficking and smuggling. They either seek some sort of employment or are in pursuit of a partner who would bring stability in their life as opportunities are difficult in Bangladesh.
Besides, the human network of Rohingyas in different countries helps them decide if they want to try their luck elsewhere or not. They do not always even need the middlemen as they have their own connections.
TBS: What role should the Bangladesh government play in such circumstances?
AM: Instead of immediate response, the Bangladesh government should have a long-term plan to stop trafficking of the Rohingyas. The recent decision to allow education programmes for the Rohingya children and adolescents is one such good step. This could be extended to education for the elderly members of the group as well.
So far, employment opportunities for Rohingyas is all about assistance in humanitarian activities. The government should also consider the employability of the Rohingyas both within the camps and in the local community, as well as local economy.
For example, there is a growing concern about deforestation due to the Rohingyas. They can be allowed to be engaged in afforestation and earn their own livelihoods.
Life is not all about ensuring sustenance. So, the Rohingyas should be engaged in some activities. They can also be involved in local development initiatives.
They also need motivation and awareness about trafficking and smuggling. Stronger legal action - using the very good set of laws relevant to human trafficking - should be taken against the trafficking kingpins. Also, increasing border surveillance and a stronger enforcement of law and order by the border security forces should be ensured.
TBS: Human trafficking and smuggling is a global issue. What are the steps needed to stop unsafe migration worldwide? What strategy could help us get rid of human trafficking at large?
AM: Combat it regionally. This is because the regional trends are similar. So, cross-learning and collaborative efforts can help address this problem.
During the last wave of Rohingya trafficking, the rescued Rohingyas said they had found non-Bengali speaking people on the boats. So, human traffickers are active in other countries as well.
The law enforcement, for instance, has to be stronger in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. What afflicts us locally is afflicting the whole world.
Just think about all the tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea. We learn about those events through the international media only when a boat is rescued and lives are lost.
Accountability of lawmakers and law enforcers is a must to combat human trafficking worldwide, and regional measures may work better than addressing the problem globally.