Human trafficking and opportunities for action

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Coffins containing the bodies of Rohingya boat people line a local Muslim cemetery in Songkhla's Hat Yai district, after being recovered from a mass grave earlier this month in Padang Besar. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya/Bangkok Post

What has happened in Thailand and elsewhere represents a collective failure of all of us, to listen to and act on the experiences of people subject to the most awful abuses and killings, says the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign.

The recent awful findings of mass graves in Thailand bear testimony to what survivors from Myanmar have been saying for years.

It is a sad fact that, over all this time and despite the overwhelming evidence, national, Asean and international governments and agencies have been seemingly incapable of offering even the most basic protection to these thousands of women, men and children, our fellow human beings.

Many of them are from the Rohingya community in Myanmar. The Myanmar government wrote the Rohingya out of the constitution in 1980. This denial of citizenship rights then encouraged the oppression, dispossession, and violence that have been experienced by the women, men and children of this unprotected minority Muslim community for the last 30 years and more.

The Myanmar government still denies the Rohingya any recognition as citizens. Indeed reports continue to circulate that Myanmar government agencies are colluding with human traffickers to encourage the emptying of the Rohingya from their land.

And yet Asean and other governments and international groupings continue to do business with this government, turning a blind eye to the horrific abuses going on, putting the pursuit of profits (as is so often the case) over the fate (including the systematic murder and trafficking) of people.

So what has happened and is happening in Thailand and elsewhere represents a collective failure of all of us, to listen to and act on the experiences of people subject to the most awful abuses and killings.

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At least the events of the last days have sparked a reaction; we need to make sure that this reaction is inclusive, sustained and determinedly effective.

For the fact is that without such determined, coordinated, properly resourced and comprehensive action by national governments, regional groupings like Asean, and the international community, the human traffickers will continue to flourish, and systematically rape, torture, extort, sell and/or murder women, men and children by the thousands.

We need to be very clear that it is the traffickers and their associates who are the criminals, not the victims/survivors. We cannot blame migrant workers for the abuses they suffer; we cannot blame refugees for seeking asylum away from intolerable situations.

It is from these communities that we have been told of the horror camps, holding houses, boat journeys, where rape, killings and extortion are daily experienced, and with the syndicates including people from relevant authorities.

Women and men from these communities have reported that this is happening in Thailand and Malaysia, which is confirmed by report after report from UN agencies and others. So why have we been so incapable of acting to eliminate this horror?

As many have been saying for years, human traffickers prey on the most vulnerable. And we have known for years that refugees, asylum-seekers and migrant workers are amongst the most vulnerable of all groups, with women and children being particularly vulnerable. Leaving them with little or no protection continues to be an invitation to human traffickers to operate with impunity.

READ MORE:  Plight of the dispossesed Rohingya

So although Malaysia does ‘allow’ refugees and asylum seekers to be here, we give them no rights and therefore no protection. Without a right to work, refugees and asylum seekers are completely at the mercy of potentially unscrupulous employers or agents, and many end up in trafficked situations.

For them, there is no avenue for reporting abuses because they have no legal status. This is true too for migrant workers: effective protection against traffickers and abusers does not exist because there is no guaranteed right to redress. We can change and need to change this situation immediately if we are to stop human trafficking.

Indeed Malaysia now has an opportunity to take a firm and decisive lead. As a national government and as the present chair of Asean and member of the UN Security Council, we can set the example in creating a welcoming, supportive and empowering environment for refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers – women, men and children – in our own country and across the region.

We can initiate without delay:

  • the prioritisation of anti-trafficking initiatives and a declaration of war against human traffickers, to include the pursuit of all involved in human trafficking syndicates whoever they may be, without fear or favour;
  • the commitment of adequate resources to ensure that this can be done effectively;
  • the respect and support of refugee, asylum-seeker and migrant communities, respecting their testimonies and following through on information given, such respect and support to include protection through the provision of basic rights;
  • the coordination across Asean of initiatives to protect those who need protection and to prosecute all criminals, including human traffickers, smugglers, murderers, rapists, abductors, ransomers and extortionists;
  • the urgent addressing of the problems caused by the failure of the Myanmar government to recognise the Rohingya as citizens and to provide protection for Rohingya and for other ethnic minorities in the country.
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All this needs to be done in a spirit of unity and cooperation, between governments; between governments and refugee, asylum seeker and migrant communities; between governments and civil society; and between governments and the international community. Every single one of us has a role to play. Openness, transparency and accountability need to be the foundation of our initiatives.

This is a battle that has for far too long been avoided and its need ignored. At least let us make the horrific findings of the last few days a catalyst for actions which we will in future time look back on with pride and be able to say: that was the moment we all came together united in our fight against the corrupt, despicable criminals who care for nothing but to profit from the lives and misery of innocent women, men and children.

Together we can make this happen.

Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign
11 May 2015

Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign is an umbrella campaign based in Penang, Malaysia

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