Human trafficking has long been an endemic problem in Southeast Asia, as witnessed by the recent discovery of over 1600 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis packed into boats off the Indonesian coast. These migrants were seeking to escape their native countries in the pursuit of better lives in Thailand and Indonesia. Having been enticed by human traffickers with promises of passage to these countries, thousands of migrants undertake the expensive and dangerous journey, often with deadly consequences.
Human trafficking in the region is often orchestrated from Thailand – infamous as a hub for illegal migrants. Recent discoveries of migrant mass graves in the jungle has prompted a sweeping raid on local traffickers and officials in Thailand. Until recently, migrants who made it to Thailand would be held in open pens in jungle camps. Migrants would then be ransomed for $2000, with smugglers extorting families and relatives. Those who managed to pay would be allowed to continue on their journey, while those unable to muster the funds were beaten, and either intentionally killed or left to die.
The Rohingya people of Myanmar (Burma) have been fleeing the country en mass for years, as the Burmese government has implemented a series of discriminatory laws, such as the revocation of ID cards and attendant rights. Moreover, there exists widespread anti-Rohingya sentiments among the general Burmese population. Specifically, the Muslim Rohingya are viewed as foreigners – allegedly from Bangladesh – by Buddhist majority Burmese society. Religio-cultural tensions alongside government indifference, has only stoked systemic discrimination.
Many thousands of Rohingya already live in refugee camps in Thailand, yet many seek to avoid these camps, opting to chance a journey to farther afield to Muslim majority Malaysia or Indonesia. Whereas the Thai government has been more accommodating of Rohingya and other migrant groups, problems still exist. A key factor that pushes these migrants to journey to more distant countries is that, like Myanmar, Thailand is a majority Buddhist nation. Consequently, there are significant pressures on migrants from religious and ethnic-based xenophobia in their host countries.
Similarly, many Bangladeshis are desperately trying to escape poverty and hardship in Bangladesh. Consequently, both groups often occupy the same migrant boats, and both wish to find refuge in Muslim majority countries. Malaysia and Indonesia are seen as favourable destinations for migrants because of their (relatively) higher levels of state cohesion and accountability.
This regional trafficking problem is likely to continue so long as socio-economic and political turmoil in Myanmar and Bangladesh remains unaddressed. Whereas Bangladesh is nominally a democracy, it remains bogged down by corruption and a lack of economic development. As for Myanmar, the country is officially a dictatorship run by a military junta; however, many in the international community are hoping that the reform and opening process begun in 2011 will bear fruit.