Smugglers and Security Forces Prey on Asia’s New Boat People

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By Reuters

Anti-trafficking campaigners have produced mounting evidence of the widespread use of slave labor from countries such as Myanmar on Thai fishing boats, which face an acute labor shortage.

Fishing companies buy Rohingya men for between 10,000 baht ($320) and 20,000 baht ($640), depending on age and strength, said the smuggler in Phang Nga in southern Thailand.

He recounted sales of Rohingya in the past year to Indonesian and Singapore fishing firms. This has made the industry a major source of US concern over Thailand’s record on human trafficking. About 8 percent of Thai seafood exports go to supermarkets and restaurants in the United States, the second biggest export market after Japan.

The Thai government has said it is serious about tackling human trafficking, though no government minister has publicly acknowledged that slavery exists in the fishing industry.

Sabur, his wife Monzurah and more than a dozen Rohingya thought slavery might be their fate. The smugglers held them on the Thai island for five weeks. The captors said they would be sold to fisheries, pig farms or plantations if money didn’t arrive soon.

“We were too scared to sleep at night,” said Monzurah, 19 years old.

Arif Ali, the family patriarch in Kuala Lumpur, managed to raise about $21,000 to secure the release of 19 of his relatives, including his sister Sabmeraz, Sabur and Monzurah.
They were taken on foot across the border into Malaysia in May.

But 10 of the family, all men, remained imprisoned on the island as he struggled to raise more funds.

As Ali was interviewed in early June, his cellphone rang and he had a brief, heated conversation. “They call every day,” he said.

“They say if we call the police they will kill them.”

Some women without money are sold as brides for 50,000 baht ($1,600) each, typically to Rohingya men in Malaysia, the Thai smuggler said.

Refugees who are caught and detained by Thai authorities also face the risk of abuse. At a detention center in Phang Nga, 269 Rohingya men and boys lived in cage-like cells that stank of sweat and urine when a Reuters journalist visited recently. Most had been there six months. Some used crutches because their muscles had atrophied.

“Every day we ask when we can leave this place, but we have no idea if that will ever happen,” said Faizal Haq, 14.

They are among about 2,000 Rohingya held in 24 immigration detention centers across Thailand, according to the Thai government.

“To be honest, we really don’t know what to do with them,” said one immigration official who declined to be named. Myanmar has rejected a Thai request to repatriate them.

Dozens of Rohingya have escaped detention centers. The Thai smuggler said some immigration officials will free Rohingya for a price.

Thailand’s Foreign Ministry denied immigration officials take payments from smugglers.

Promised land

When Rahim, Abdul Hamid and the other Rohingya finally arrived in Thailand, smugglers met them in Satun province, which borders Malaysia.

They were herded into pickup trucks and driven to a farm, where they say they saw the smugglers negotiate with Thai police and immigration officials. The smugglers told them to contact relatives in Malaysia who could pay the roughly 6,000 ringgit ($1,800).

“If you run away, the police and immigration will bring you back to us. We paid them to do that,” the most senior smuggler told them, the two men recalled.

After 22 days at the farm, Rahim and Hamid escaped. It was near midnight when they darted across a field, cleared a barbed-wire fence and ran into the jungle. They wandered for a day, hungry and lost, before meeting a Burmese man who found them work on a fruit farm in Padang Besar near the Thai-Malaysia border. They still work there today, hoping to save enough money to leave Thailand.

If the smugglers get paid, they usually take the Rohingya across southern Thailand in pickup trucks, 16 at a time, with just enough space to breathe, the smuggler in Thailand said.

They are hidden under containers of fish, shrimp or other food, and sent through police checkpoints at 1,000 baht ($32) apiece, the smuggler said. Once close to Malaysia, the final crossing of the border is usually made by foot.

Abdul Rahim, the shopkeeper who lost his wife and toddler, arranged a quick payment to the smugglers from relatives in Kuala Lumpur. He was soon on a boat to Malaysia with his surviving daughter and his sister-in-law, Ruksana. They were dropped off around April 20 at a remote spot in Malaysia’s northern Penang island.

For Abdul Rahim and many other Rohingya, Malaysia was the promised land. For most, that hope fades quickly. At best, they can register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and receive a card that gives them minimal legal protection and a chance for a low-paid job such as construction.

While Malaysia has won praise for accepting Rohingya refugees, it has not signed the UN Refugee Convention that would oblige it to give them fuller rights.

Those picked up by Malaysian authorities face weeks or months in packed detention camps, where several witnesses said beatings and insufficient food were common. The Malaysian government did not comment on conditions in the camps.

The UNHCR has registered 28,000 Rohingya asylum seekers out of nearly 95,000 Myanmar refugees in Malaysia, many of whom have been in the country for years. An estimated 49,000 unregistered asylum seekers can wait months or years for a coveted UNHCR card. The card gives asylum seekers discounted treatment at public hospitals, is recognized by many employers, and gives protection against repatriation.

The vast majority, like Sabur, Abdul Rahim and their families, don’t obtain these minimal protections. They evade detention in the camps but live in fear of arrest. By early July, Sabur had found temporary work in an iron foundry on Kuala Lumpur’s outskirts earning about $10 a day. He will likely have to save for years to pay back the money that secured his release.

Abdul Rahim’s family now lives in a small, windowless room in a city suburb. His late wife’s sister, Ruksana, coughed up blood during one interview, but is afraid to seek medical help without documentation.

By early July, Abdul Rahim had married Ruksana. He was picking up occasional odd jobs through friends but was struggling to pay the $80 a month rent on their shabby room.

Despite that, and the loss of his first wife and daughter, he still believes he made the right decision to flee Myanmar.

“I don’t regret coming,” he said, “but I regret what happened. I think about my wife and daughter all day.”

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