Human traffickers find easy prey among Burma's minorities
It’s been 47 days since Abdul, a scrawny Rohingya male in his 40s, sent his 14-year-old daughter Dildar away from the Internally Displaced Persons camp where they’d been living in squalid conditions with little food or health care. Dildar left on a fishing boat crammed with other Rohingya Muslims escaping oppression in Rakhine state in the westernmost part of Burma, the country also known as Myanmar.
Until Dildar’s traffickers are paid off, she is being held captive in a secret location, somewhere on the border between Thailand and Malaysia.
These traffickers are criminals, out to make a profit. They use lies to lure people onto their boats. Dildar was told her trip would only be a couple hundred US dollars. Now the traffickers are demanding $1500 for her freedom.
“Most of the cases hinge on deception that takes place on shore,” says Matthew Smith, the executive director at Fortify Rights — an organization that has documented the persecution of Rohingya for many years.
He explains that the Rohingya are told they’ll pay a certain fee to get on a boat to take them to Thailand or Malaysia. But when they get on that boat, they find the conditions are not what they expected — they’re deprived of adequate space, food and water. And the gangs who operate these boats are highly abusive. Sexual violence and murder have been documented, and in some cases Rohingya have committed suicide at sea.
But the hardships do not end there. The Rohingya who survive the trip over the Andaman Sea will face further abuses once they get to shore.
“Most people get on the boats thinking they are going directly to Malaysia, but what they find is that they are taken on shore in Thailand and clandestinely transported to what we refer to as ‘torture camps,’” Smith says.
He says thousands of Rohingya are being held captive by these transnational criminal syndicates. They are beaten and tortured. They’re handed cell phones and told to call anybody they can to raise money to ensure their freedom.
At that point, the fee is no longer a few hundred dollars, but up to as much as $2000. And even if the families cannot pay, the traffickers can still make money off the refugees.
Smith explains that after several months, if their families are not able to raise the money to free them, they can be sold to work on fishing boats or for others in Thailand and Malaysia. Young women are often sold into forced marriages.
Abdul is facing a similar bait and switch. When he calls the trafficker from the refugee camp, he is told: “$1500 and Dildar will be set free.”
Abdul works as a trishaw driver, and on a good day he can earn up to $1.50. He explains that he will never be able to earn enough money to raise $1500. So he asks the trafficker, at the other end of the line, if there is any chance that they could marry off his daughter, just to get her out of the jungle camp.
”All the other girls here are leaving because their parents are paying,” the trafficker says. ”It’s only Dildar that no one wants to pay for.”
Then, the trafficker hands over the phone to Dildar, who at this point hasn’t had any contact with her parents since she left more than six weeks ago.
“Papa?” she asks, and Abdul starts crying.
”My daughter! I don’t know what to do,” he says.
”Can’t you borrow money from someone?” she asks.
”From who? I have no relatives that can lend me that kind of money. We are broke,” he says.
”Daddy, all the other girls are leaving here,” Dildar says.
Before Dildar gets a chance to say goodbye, the trafficker takes back the phone. ”If you manage to raise the money, call me again,” he says.
”I will try, God willing,” Abdul says, and again begs the trafficker to try to come up with some kind of solution.
This trade in people has become a very lucrative business, and the number of Rohingya refugees fleeing Burma has reached record highs over the last few years. Smith’s organization, Fortify Rights, estimates that around 250,000 Rohingya have left the country on boats since 2012.
This June, the US State Department will present its annual Trafficking in Persons report — a worldwide ranking of countries’ efforts to combat human trafficking. Smith expects that this year’s report will downgrade Burma to the lowest possible ranking.
Axel Kronholm is a freelance journalist covering Southeast Asia and Myanmar in particular. His reporting spans over a wide range of issues but focuses mainly on politics, conflict, economic development and human rights.