By Puttanee Kangkun & John Quinley III in Bangkok Post
Tomorrow marks the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, but the governments of Southeast Asia have little to celebrate. Rohingya refugees, many of whom are survivors of trafficking and crimes of atrocity, continue to arrive on the shores of Thailand and Malaysia, where their arrival is met with a cold reception. Instead of protecting trafficking survivors and refugees, Thailand and Malaysia continue to propagate shameful policies of detention and refoulement and fail to hold traffickers accountable.
We work closely with survivors of human trafficking and find that the best solutions to these problems are informed by survivors themselves. On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, governments would do well to listen to survivors and work with refugees to best protect their rights.
Instead, Thailand and Malaysia routinely violate the rights of trafficking survivors and refugees in three ways.
First, Rohingya refugees are routinely arrested, extorted and held in detention facilities, despite credible evidence of trafficking and the risk of spreading Covid-19. Between May 7 and June 1, during the height of the pandemic, Thai security forces arrested 35 Rohingya, including six women and 16 children, in the Thailand-Myanmar border town of Mae Sot. These Rohingya are now being held in shelters and immigration facilities.
At present, Thai authorities are holding more than 100 Rohingya in detention facilities and government-run shelters throughout the country, in some cases for years.
“I was trying to bring my [intended] wife [to Malaysia], and she has been detained now,” the fiancé of one of the women detained in Thailand told us. “I am now worried. How can we bring her here and get her out of detention?”
On July 27, Malaysian authorities detained dozens of Rohingya refugees who arrived by boat on island of Langkawi. In Malaysia, the authorities have confirmed Covid-19 cases in immigration detention centers. Further, in August, it will be a year since the Malaysian authorities allowed the United Nations refugee agency access to immigration detainees.
In Malaysia, the government often treats trafficking survivors as undocumented migrants or survivors of smuggling, and the authorities routinely detain them.
The second way Thailand and Malaysia violate the rights of trafficking survivors and refugees is through so-called “push-back” or “help on” policies, whereby the authorities intercept boats of refugees and force them back out to sea.
Authorities in Thailand have long implemented the Guardian of the Andaman Sea policy, which calls for the Thai Navy to “immediately push out the Rohingya” and prevent Rohingya from landing in Thailand by conducting “offshore patrols”.
Malaysia also has an abhorrent record of pushing refugee boats back out to sea. According to Malaysian Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, the authorities have stopped 22 ships from entering the country since May 1, 2020, a number that is likely higher now.
Despite making overtures that his government would accept refugees, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said during a conference with Asean leaders on June 26: “We can no longer take more [Rohingya] as our resources and capacity are already stretched, compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Untold numbers of refugees have died at sea under the abusive push-back policies over the years. Moving forward, Thailand and Malaysia should instead lead efforts in coordinating search and rescue missions to protect trafficking survivors and refugees being held or abandoned at sea and ensure their safe disembarkation. All governments in Asean have legal obligations to do so.
Finally, Thailand and Malaysia have failed (or been unwilling) to prosecute perpetrators of trafficking, allowing transnational criminal syndicates to operate with impunity. From July 2017 to October 2019, Thailand prosecuted more than 80 officials for the crime of trafficking Rohingya. This was a major step forward, but not enough. Malaysia, for its part, has still failed to hold traffickers accountable.
In March 2019, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia and Fortify Rights published a joint report, “Sold Like Fish”, based on a multi-year joint investigation into the trafficking of Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia from 2012 to 2015. The report found that traffickers committed crimes against humanity against Rohingya at sea, in Thailand and in Malaysia from 2012 to 2015, revealing what appeared to be an official cover-up of trafficking crimes.
The government of Malaysia established a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the allegations but, despite evidence of official complicity in these crimes, the commission failed to lead to any accountability or justice for Rohingya and never released its final report to the public.
Rohingya survivors deserve accountability, an effective remedy, and to know the truth of what happened, including what is included in the Commission’s full report.
In June, the US State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons report and found that eight of Asean’s 10 states had failed to meet minimum standards to combat trafficking. The report kept Thailand as a Tier-2 country and downgraded Malaysia to a Tier-2 Watchlist country. The failure to respect the rights of Rohingya trafficking survivors, including Rohingya, is a key reason Thailand and Malaysia did not rank well in the report.
The Palermo Protocol obliges state parties to uphold the rights of survivors by providing for the “physical, psychological and social recovery of victims of trafficking in persons”. This includes housing, counselling and information, medical, psychological and material assistance, plus employment, educational, and training opportunities.
On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, Thailand and Malaysia should commit to stopping their policies of detention, refoulement and protecting perpetrators, and all governments in Asean should renew their commitments to protecting survivors of trafficking.
This article was originally published in Bangkok Post here.