Some are hopeful the ongoing Rohingya migrant crisis could force countries in Asia to answer longstanding questions over the trade and maybe even lead to change.
Bangkok (dpa) – Sameera, an ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar’s Arakan State, was on her way to her father-in-law’s house when the men took her.
They spoke a different language but forced her and her husband onto a boat.
“I don’t know who they are. I was two months on the boat,” Sameera, who goes by only one name, told Human Rights Watch in a camp in Thailand.
“One day my husband came down to me, he was bleeding from his head and shoulder and arm. The smugglers beat him, he didn’t know why. I didn’t see him again until we were all dropped at the island” in Thailand.
They were held by traffickers for several weeks, but then the military came. “When the Thai navy came we were sent to different places,” she said. “The last time I saw him he was still in pain.”
Traffickers reportedly hold Myanmar migrants in Thailand to demand further payment from their families before they are released onwards to Malaysia or Indonesia.
Some are reportedly abducted to feed this ransom industry, with officials reportedly sometimes turning a blind eye until recently.
But the issue has been forced into the open by recent high-profile media coverage of thousands of migrants from Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya group and Bangladesh stranded in boats in the region, sparking conversations that rights group argue are long overdue.
Officials and members of the public have expressed surprise at how well-established and longstanding were the extensive networks used to traffic Rohingya migrants to Malaysia and Indonesia.
Thailand and Malaysia have launched investigations, exposing local officials as key cogs in the trafficking machine and bringing several sets of charges.
NGOs in the region have been less surprised.
“These brutal networks, with the complicity of government officials. profit from the desperation and misery of some of the world’s most persecuted and neglected people,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
In 2014, the Global Slavery Index found that of 36 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, more than 60 per cent were in Asia.
The US State Department placed 10 Asian countries in the lowest tier of its annual Trafficking In Persons Report.
These were countries “whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts” to combat trafficking, it said.
Various NGOs have attributed the disproportionate number of trafficking victims in Asia to poor policy.
“Most countries in the region do not have comprehensive laws in place to manage and ensure protections for migrants and refugees,” said Amy Smith of rights group Fortify Rights.
“Migration is largely managed through ad-hoc, complicated, and ever-changing policies. This leaves migrants and refugees with few options other than to trust brokers to facilitate their travel.”
There are hopes that the Rohingya crisis is making governments start to take notice.
The leaders of Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia have all expressed concern at the networks that exist within their borders, and starting clamping down.
“Thailand has effectively stopped smuggling through Thailand,” said Jeffrey Labovitz, the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission in Thailand.
A conference on Friday in Bangkok will be attended by over 17 countries, some of them major hubs for human trafficking including Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Thailand and Bangladesh.
Rights groups are hopeful that a greater understanding will emerge from the conference and that the international community will not only continue their crackdown on traffickers but offer help to victims like Sameera as well.
“Protection is a key to combatting human trafficking,” Amy Smith said. “Survivors of human trafficking should be afforded protections and access to assistance.”