After the drowning of 16 Rohingya refugees in the Bay of Bengal this week, activists fear that a transnational human smuggling network is again actively luring victims and putting their lives at risk.
Bangladeshi naval rescuers have saved 73 people from the vessel which originally carried 130. The vessel had set sail early on Tuesday packed with refugees trying to make their way to Malaysia from camps near the resort town of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.
The UN estimated that more than 170,000 people were trafficked to south-east Asia by boat from 2012–2015, but traffickers was put under close watch when Thailand found mass graves at detention camps used to hold the refugees until family members paid for their ransoms.
The network had largely been dormant since, but fears of new activity have risen when more than 700,000 Rohingya fled the Myanmar military in 2017, taking Bangladesh’s total population of Rohingya refugees to more than a million.
The Bangladeshi coastguard has occasionally stopped boats trying to leave through the Bay of Bengal, while a small number of boats from either Bangladesh or Myanmar have arrived in Malaysia.
Bangkok-based Rohingya activist Hajee Ismail said the few remaining Rohingya in Myanmar and the refugees living in Bangladeshi camps were struggling to see a future for them, which allowed people smugglers to entice them with promises of greater freedom in Malaysia.
“This is not a new network, it’s the old network that woke up now. Since 2015, they’ve been living silently because in Thailand it was difficult to move,” said Ismail, who runs the Rohingya Peace Network in Thailand group, which often provides for support for trafficking victims intercepted by Thai authorities.
He said people were also being taken to Malaysia by land, on long journeys through India, Myanmar and Thailand.
Rohingya activist Ziaur Rahman, who was kidnapped in Bangladesh and trafficked to Malaysia in 2014, said Rohingya were being exploited because the international community had not provided a solution to decades of persecution.
“This thing needs to be stopped, you saw before so many people were killed. Their bodies will be found in the sea, their bodies will be in the jungle and the mountains,” he said, adding that he believed it was the same criminal syndicate who trafficked him to Malaysia.
Thailand prosecuted 62 members of the trafficking network in July 2017, including a senior army general, and in 2019 Malaysia established a royal commission of inquiry to investigate human trafficking.
Many of those prosecuted were involved in transporting Rohingya and Bangladeshis within Thailand, where they were routinely held captive in Thai jungles until their relatives agreed to pay ransoms of around US$2,000 (£1,548).
Rahman said Malaysia offered little improvement in living conditions for the Rohingya.
“The reality is I’ve been here six years and still I’m living in limbo, there is no future,” he said.
“We are not allowed to work, our kids cannot study, how are we going to eat? Every day we are struggling.” (Source: The Guardian)