Conflict, climate, corruption drive Southeast Asia people trafficking: UN

Latest report comes amid a surge in mostly Muslim Rohingya making dangerous sea journeys in search of safety.

Rescuers in Aceh carrying a black body bag up the beach. The sea is behind them.
Many risk their lives as they're smuggled to Southeast Asia [Syifa Yulinnas/Antara Foto via Reuters]

Conflict, climate and the demand for low-paid labour in countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, with corruption as a “major enabler”, are driving the growth of the people smuggling trade in Southeast Asia, according to a new report from the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Tens of thousands of people from Myanmar as well as from other parts of Southeast Asia and from outside the region are smuggled to, through and from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand every year, the UNODC said in its report Migrant Smuggling in Southeast Asia, which was published on Tuesday.

The report identified three key trends in people smuggling: the demand for workers willing to take on low-wage jobs and the limited channels available for people to fill these jobs legally; the existence of “substantial populations” of people in need of international protection but also with few legal ways to reach safety; and the prevalence of corruption among some public officials.

The report noted that such corruption acted as a “driver and enabler of migrant smuggling, as well as contributing to impunity for perpetrators. Public officials share smuggling profits; are bribed to ensure compliance; and obstruct criminal investigations.”

The UNODC surveyed some 4,785 migrants and refugees in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand for the report, with 83 percent of them saying they were smuggled. An additional 60 migrants and refugees also took part in in-depth qualitative interviews, while 35 key informants were interviewed.

One in four of those smuggled said they had experienced corruption and been forced to bribe officials including immigration officers, police and the military. The UNODC noted that corruption also fed the smuggling trade, because those making the journey felt they needed the smugglers to deal with state authorities, because of the corruption.

Many of those fleeing conflict were from Myanmar, including the mostly Muslim Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom fled into neighbouring Bangladesh when the military began a brutal crackdown in 2017, which is now being investigated as genocide.

The report comes amid a surge in the number of Rohingya people risking dangerous sea journeys from Bangladesh and Myanmar in the hope of reaching safety in Southeast Asia.

On Monday, Indonesia ended the search for a boat thought to be carrying about 150 people that capsized off the coast of the northern province of Aceh, tossing dozens of people into the sea. Some 69 people were rescued and three bodies recovered.

The UNODC also found that abuse was rife, with three-quarters of those surveyed saying they had experienced some form of abuse during their journey from the smugglers themselves, the military and police, or criminal gangs. Physical violence was the most reported type of abuse.

In 2015, Thailand and Malaysia discovered mass graves at more than two dozen trafficking camps hidden in the jungle on the Malaysian side of the border at Wang Kelian. Police found 139 graves as well as signs that those held there had been tortured.

Thailand and Malaysia carried out a joint investigation into the camps and Thailand convicted 62 defendants, including nine government officials, over the deaths and trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Malaysia via Thailand two years later.

Last June, Malaysia charged four Thai nationals over the camps after they were extradited from Bangkok.

An earlier inquiry found that no Malaysian enforcement officials, public servants or local citizens were involved in trafficking syndicates, but there was “gross negligence” on the part of border patrols who had failed to notice the camps.

As well as conflict and work, the UNODC said climate change had emerged as a factor in people smuggling to Southeast Asia.

The report said one in four of those surveyed had said they felt compelled to migrate because of more extreme weather events including heat waves and flooding, including three out of four Bangladeshis surveyed.

The report found the average price paid to be smuggled to Southeast Asia was $2,380 with men paying slightly more than women.

Afghans being smuggled to Malaysia and Indonesia paid the most – $6,004.

Source: Al Jazeera