The images of thousands of emaciated migrants on boats sent back to sea by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and reports of the discovery of the mass graves of trafficked people in Thailand and Malaysia have together done what human rights activists have been trying to achieve for decades. They have drawn international attention to the plight of thousands of Rohingya people who have been deemed stateless by the Myanmar government for more than 40 years as well as the issue of human trafficking in South and Southeast Asia. It appears that the images have managed to shock the world but this is not a new phenomenon. Nor can it be resolved just by a one-time acceptance of the migrants into these or other countries. While recent reports suggest that Malaysia and Indonesia will no longer turn away migrants, these horrifying images speak of a history of ethnicity-based marginalisation that has turned certain ethnic groups into perpetual victims of systematic oppression.
Exit as escape
The Rohingya in Myanmar are perhaps the worst off among many minority groups that have been repressed by the military government of Myanmar as they were stripped of their citizenship and rendered stateless between 1974 and 1982. The government sees them as Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh who migrated there during the colonial period (and continue to do so) whereas the Rohingya see themselves as (Muslim) natives of Arakan (Rakhine), a state in Myanmar. In turn, Bengali Muslims in Bangladesh and India do not see the Rohingya as their kin in any respect, making the Rohingya the “safest” scapegoat. The Rohingya are thus deemed outsiders and continue to be persecuted and denied citizenship. In fact, the Rohingya are among the most persecuted minorities in the world according to the UNHCR.
Many had participated in Myanmar Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyis pro-democracy movement as members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the main Opposition party, only to realise that the NLD, like the junta, has no place for the Rohingya in its “democracy.” There were and continue to be fringe armed groups mobilising to increase pressure on the government, but activists complain that there is no solidarity among the Rohingya let alone any consensus with regards to the future of the movement. Because many of the Rohingya are averse to armed struggle, they are unable to defend themselves when the military sweeps through their villages to clear the areas of “illegal immigrants.” Fleeing becomes the only option, no matter how dangerous that might be, the choice being between certain death and a small chance of survival.
Plight of economic migrants
Economic migrants face a somewhat different reality. The logic of globalisation requires that labour be freely mobile across markets for efficiency reasons, at least theoretically. Yet, despite high economic integration, labour migration is often criminalised, creating an inherent contradiction between the incentives to migrate and immigration laws that limit migration. What this means is that there are profits to be made from migration that governments restrict artificially, which then incentivises “illegal migration.” When the workers are desperate, unskilled, and willing to pawn off their lives worth of assets to access job markets abroad, they become easy targets of extortion, exploitation and trafficking. As the many interviews of rescued migrants in the past weeks indicate, these migrants often have no idea that what they were doing was illegal; after all, many had paid huge sums of money for migration services – often by selling land/assets, taking on loans, or mortgaging future earnings.
A small example from Bangladesh provides a microcosm of the larger issues at hand. Since the 1990s, Bangladesh has been one of the two largest suppliers of labour to Malaysia, responsible for much of the construction work and infrastructure development there. Beginning 2012, however, a smaller number of Bangladeshis have been able to go to Malaysia through official channels because of “insufficient demand” despite a government-level agreement to send 14 lakh Bangladeshi workers to Malaysia. At a time when the government could not ensure regular labour export, traffickers, in the guise of middlemen and government agents, lured workers into treacherous waters.
Paradoxically, the same desires for upward mobility are deemed entrepreneurial if the migrants are among the elite class and know the laws well enough to never break them. Going back to the case of Bangladeshis in Malaysia, in the same period too, Bangladeshis formed the second largest group to apply for a residency programme called “Malaysia My Second Home”, aimed at wealthy families in developing countries who would like to take advantage of state-sponsored facilities in Malaysia (unavailable in their own countries) and eventually invest there.
Thus, while there was no demand for Bangladeshi unskilled labour, wealthy Bangladeshis were welcome to go and live there. Perhaps, this highlights Malaysias developmental path; Malaysia needed Bangladeshi (manual) workers when its primary investments were infrastructure-based. Now, as it tries to shift to a consumer-driven economy, it no longer requires unskilled labour as much as it requires a strong consumer base. While wealthy Bangladeshis found their way to their “second homes,” the unskilled, poor migrants ended up stranded at sea, buried in unmarked mass-graves, or in detention centres across South and Southeast Asia.
Being Bengali Muslim
The circumstances under which the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants found themselves at sea are different, but the issues at hand are not only about escaping ethnic cleansing or economic depravation. In the last several decades, Bengali Muslims have become among the most persecuted in the region, easily targeted as being foreign by virtue of a shared ethno-religious identity with the majority of Bangladeshis. For its part, the Bangladeshi government has turned a blind eye to such acts for the sake of regional peace, stability and cooperation, made necessary by its weaker economic position. Perhaps, it is for the same reasons that the Bangladeshi government allows the 3,50,000 strong refugee population along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border without demanding resolution to the over 40 year refugee crisis. Thus, not only are Bengali Muslims easily “othered”, but they also have no foreign patrons to come to their defence, despite cross-border ethnic ties.
The global war on terror has effectively legitimised anti-Muslim sentiments and attacks across the world, even when links to the al-Qaeda are at best tenuous. For example, several UNHCR officials I spoke to in 2008 about resettlement of the Rohingya, had categorically said that their “ties to terrorism” make them unlikely candidates for resettlement in the developed world; they saw resettlement in Bangladesh as the only durable solution to the Rohingya refugee crisis.
Despite the various uncertainties, several things become clear: in spite of varied circumstances, the migrants at sea are predominantly Bengali Muslim (defined broadly), unwanted in their own homelands; Islamophobia has become a global force that has allowed countries like Myanmar (and the democratic voices there) to disregard the lives of (Bengali) Muslims without fear of any repercussion; a climate of anti-Muslim sentiments in India, the de facto regional hegemon, has excused and normalised repression against Muslims in the entire region (including in Sri Lanka); Muslim-majority countries also prioritise state interests and will not necessarily come to the rescue of Muslim migrants on the basis of humanity or religiosity, as can be seen in the case of Indonesia and Malaysia; hope lies with the people – Indonesian fishermen were the first to rescue migrants defying government orders to turn away boats carrying migrants. It is among ordinary people that we can find humanity.