Thailand grapples with smuggling of Rohingya to its shores

Thailand grapples with smuggling of Rohingya to its shores
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar being transported. In Thailand, traffickers await Rohingya, where prices are negotiated for their onward journey. When a Rohingya reaches Malaysia, he would have paid up to $2,700.

From his patch of land, near the Myanmar port city of Sittwe, on which he grows vegetables to supply the Rohingya people living in nearby camps, the farmer can see and hear the waves of the Bay of Bengal.

The lean, bearded man in his 40s, burnt dark brown by the sun, asked not be identified - because he had seen too much, he said. His farm is on a route used by desperate Rohingya from nearby camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) to leave the country and their hopeless situation in the camps.

Across Rakhine state on the western coast of Myanmar, some 140,000 Rohingya live in squalid IDP camps after being driven out of their homes by violent Rakhine mobs from 2012.

Periodically, he said, he would see Rohingya quietly poling boats down a creek next to his land, to get to the beach where they would board bigger boats for a risky journey, in the hands of people smugglers, for Malaysia via southern Thailand.

In Thailand, smugglers and traffickers await them in a well-honed routine, in which they are taken to camps in remote jungle terrain, and where prices are negotiated for their onward journey. By the time a Rohingya reaches Malaysia, he would have paid some 60,000 baht to 70,000 baht (S$2,700).

In this fashion, about 10,000 Rohingya are expected to arrive in southern Thailand through the October-March sailing season, a Thai official said on Monday.

Ranong province deputy governor Pinij Boonlert told local media, "We shall treat them in line with humanitarian principles, with respect for their human rights and international laws. But we will have to deport them."

Two days later, however, jolted by the discovery of trafficked Bangladeshis on an island, the tone of the Thais hardened.

Phang Nga province, like Ranong, is a hot spot for people smuggling and human trafficking. On Wednesday, Phang Nga governor Prayoon Rattanaseri told the media he had ordered local police to "follow the law to international standards".

Much of this emphasis on adhering to international standards in the country's fight against human trafficking possibly has to do with the United States' downgrading of Thailand to the lowest rank in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report in July. This ranking triggers cuts in certain US aid and exchange programmes, and withdrawal of US support in some multinational institutions.

Shortly after the Thai army seized power on May 22, junta chief and now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha placed combating human trafficking high on his list of priorities.

Thailand's handling of the rescue of the Bangladeshis, including making the effort to help them - and the arrest of two Thai traffickers in the case - has drawn rare praise from the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Bangkok-based Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia, told The Straits Times, "The district chief and… the ministry of social development and security did a great job." But with regard to general trafficking and smuggling, there was "clear connivance taking place for... people to go ashore and be taken to camps", he said. "Nothing happens there without local police and the authorities knowing about it."

Activist Chris Lewa of The Arakan Project cautioned that the trafficking and smuggling chain was long, and it was difficult to identify the key people.

But what is clear is the network has become an industry. "Bangladesh appears to be a new trend this year because of competition among brokers and smugglers as the syndicates are expanding," she said.

"Up to five, sometimes eight, cargo ships are queuing to embark people and they want to fill up the boats to maximise profit. Smugglers are coercing and forcing people aboard to fill up these cargo vessels."


This article was first published on October 17, 2014.
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