Accessibility links

Asia’s Boat People: Smuggled or Trafficked?

Rohingya migrant women, who recently arrived in Indonesia by boat, are seen inside a temporary compound for refugees in Aceh Timur regency, Indonesia's Aceh Province, May 21, 2015. (REUTERS/Beawiharta)

Rohingya migrant women, who recently arrived in Indonesia by boat, are seen inside a temporary compound for refugees in Aceh Timur regency, Indonesia's Aceh Province, May 21, 2015. (REUTERS/Beawiharta)

Reporters are following the story of Muslim Rohingya and Bangladeshis as they go overseas in search of a better future. Thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis were put on boats, but left at sea. News media also have reported on the discovery of many bodies along the border between Malaysia and Thailand. The remains were buried at jungle camps on both sides of the border.

News reports, government officials and observers have used words like “trafficking” and “smuggled” when describing the boat people. But the two words have very different meanings.

To put it simply, smuggling involves transporting people who willingly go across borders. Their movement is either done secretly or through illegal methods. The word trafficking suggests tricking or abusing those being transported. It is commonly linked to human slavery.

So are the Bangladeshis and Rohingya being smuggled or trafficked?

Jeffrey Labovitz is head of the Thailand office of the International Organization for Migration, the IOM. He says the migrants taking the trips are asking to be smuggled.

“A hundred and sixty thousand people have left (Bangladesh and Myanmar) since 2012. And these people have sat at dinner tables and over teas and coffees with community members and thought about how they can do this journey and how they can get enough money to pay.”

But as the IOM and others have found, the trip is not always easy. Sometimes families back at home could not pay. Payments were stolen. Prices suddenly increased.

“They’re put into these terrible situations where they are extorted and they’re tortured and they’re held in captivity and starved to death. Now, murder, rape, extortion -- those are all terrible, terrible crimes -- and some of these cases it’s probably trafficking, too.”

Matthew Smith is the head of the rights group Fortify Rights. He spoke on Skype from the Oslo Freedom Forum.

“It is a situation in which human beings are being regarded as property. They’re being tortured and coerced into raising money to buy their own freedom. And that’s a deeply exploitative situation -- preying on the desperation of asylum-seekers.”

Some officials see human trafficking as part of a larger smuggling network. But Mr. Smith and other activists think traffickers are running the business.

“We are not suggesting that every single person who has crossed the Bay of Bengal would meet the, the elements of human trafficking. But these are human trafficking syndicates that are bringing people from Point A to Point B. And the terms of consent change once the Rohingya or Bangladeshis board the boats.”

The countries along the network have generally failed to investigate suspected human trafficking. They also have ignored reports their officials -- in the military, police and at the local government level -- have been involved.

Human trafficking is a sensitive issue in Thailand, where military officers govern the country. Last year, the United States gave Thailand its lowest rating in the State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons” report.

When people are smuggled, they are often considered illegal migrants. If they have been trafficked, they are considered victims of trafficking.

As Matthew Smith notes, that results in a different set of rights under national and international laws.

“So this is part of the reason why we believe certain governments in the region are very hesitant to regard any of these people as victims of trafficking, because it would require a certain type of other response from them -- a more rights-respecting response, frankly.”

Myanmar’s Rakhine state is home to many Rohingya. The government considers those who left the state to have been smuggled, not trafficked.

A total of 25,000 people are believed to have taken boats from Myanmar and Bangladesh in the first three months of 2015. That is double the number of the same period last year.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

VOA Asia Correspondent Steve Herman reported this story from Bangkok. George Grow adapted it for Learning English. Anne Ball was the editor.


Words in the News

migrationn. movement of people or animals from one place to another

extortedv. demanding something by force or making threats

regardedv. considered or thought

exploitative – adj. unfairly using another person or group for profit

network – n. a group of two or more business organizations

Show comments