Last week, Caitlin McCaffrie reflected on developments in regional institutions since the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis, noting this critical limitation with the ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children: it does not cover Bangladesh. Drawing from extended fieldwork in Bangladesh and more than a decade of research on the Rohingya, this piece looks directly at Bangladesh’s own important counter-trafficking efforts, explaining the measures taken by Bangladesh to stop boats departing from its shores and their consequences.
The large scale maritime movement of people in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea is not a new phenomenon, and used to occur frequently. However, the termination of the transport of slaves and later indentured labourers by European colonial powers, and the emergence of newly independent States in the region at the end of the colonial era, put an end to the constant flow of people across the shores stretching from the Indian sub-continent to Burma and farther South-East. Sea-movements in Southeast Asia became prominent again during the Indo-China refugee crisis in the 1970s and 1980s. More recently, Rohingya and Bangladeshi people have been undertaking unauthorised maritime movements to Malaysia, or to Australia through Indonesia.
Background to the 2015 Andaman Sea Crisis
The plight of the Rohingya, a persecuted community from the Rakhine State of Myanmar, is already well-known internationally. Although the Rohingya have faced persecution and fled the country in large numbers since the late 1970s, maritime movements began to become popular around 2006 and increased substantially following the outbreak of violence in Rakhine State in 2012 and subsequent increases in harassment, discrimination and restrictions. The Rohingya lack citizenship in Myanmar, and so cannot apply for the passports and visas necessary for international migration through formal channels. Previously many Rohingya travelled to Saudi Arabia on fraudulently obtained Bangladeshi passports, but this option also became difficult after Bangladesh introduced biometric national identity documents before its 2008 election, and machine-readable passports in 2010. Consequently, the opportunity for air-travel through legal channels has significantly diminished for the Rohingya.
Boat journeys have often started both from the coast of Rakhine State and from that of Cox’s Bazar, a neighbouring district in Bangladesh where there was already a sizeable Rohingya refugee population. Many poor Bangladeshis, for whom migration through legal channels is expensive and complicated, also joined the Rohingya in migrating by boat.
Being a Muslim-majority country and a major economic powerhouse in the region, Malaysia has attracted thousands of Rohingya over the last decade. Logistically, the country is also accessible by small local fishing vessels. Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor does it have a national refugee law, but it does tolerate the presence of refugees and hosts a very large number of regular and irregular migrants. The opportunity to work in the informal economy and apparent sympathy of the population because of their shared religion have been pull factors for thousands of Rohingya.
Previously, Australia was also a major destination country for many refugees, including the Rohingya, who would continue their journey from Malaysia thorough Indonesia to Australia by boat. This route has become less popular since the Australian government imposed its strict border control regime and began incarcerating asylum seekers indefinitely in offshore detention centres in 2012.
The 2015 Andaman Sea Crisis
The UNHCR estimates that between 2012 and 2015, 112,500 Rohingya refugees travelled to Malaysia by boat. Passengers were usually brought by boat to camps in the Thai jungle and, upon payment of a ransom or further ‘fee’, transported overland to Malaysia. Many people suffered starvation, dehydration and violence at the hands of boat crews and smugglers, both while at sea and in the transit camps in Thailand. According to UNHCR estimates, 1800 refugees and migrants died on the journey during 2013-15. This migration was facilitated by a transnational network of brokers or dalal, mostly of Rohingya origin. Many government officials were also complicit in the entire operation. Several senior officials in Thailand, including a general of the Thai army, were subsequently convicted for complicity in human trafficking in 2017.
In early May 2015, the Thai authorities conducted a crackdown on the smugglers’ camps in the forests near the Malaysian border and found mass graves of refugees and migrants. As the camps were closed, about 7000 people on several large boats were abandoned at sea by smugglers. Initially, no country in the region would allow them to disembark, creating an international media and human rights outcry which has been popularly dubbed as the ‘Andaman Sea Crisis’. This period was followed by various national and regional measures, including the 2016 Bali Process Declaration on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. Subsequently, Rohingya boat movements drastically decreased in number.
Counter-trafficking measures in Bangladesh
As a country of departure, Bangladesh has played a key role in stopping the boats from departing from its shores.
Until the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis, the departure of boats from Teknaf, the Bangladeshi border town just next to Myanmar, was an ‘open-secret’. The authorities either turned a blind eye to, or profited from, the business of dalal. The terms ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ were not so popular yet.
Bangladesh enacted the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act (‘the Trafficking Act’) in 2012, but it was not widely known about or used for the first few years following enactment. Then, in 2015, Bangladeshi police engaged in ‘crossfire’ or ‘gunfight’ – a widely used method of extrajudicial killing of alleged criminals. According to a Reuters reports from 9 May 2015: ‘Three human traffickers were killed on Friday during a police raid on a meeting of people smugglers on a beach at Cox’s Bazar’. This was the first time the dalal became a group of criminals worthy of dying in ‘crossfire’, alongside the likes of drug traffickers and terrorists.
Immediately, the filing of criminal cases under the Trafficking Act skyrocketed. By May 2019, about 469 cases had been filed under the Trafficking Act in Cox’s Bazar alone, although there had not yet been a single conviction. The police and border guards implemented strict border controls, preventing any boats from departing from Cox’s Bazar. Meanwhile thousands of people have been ‘rescued’ while trying to get on board. According to a major national daily news outlet, Prothom Alo, 796 Rohingya and two Bangladeshis attempting to reach Malaysia were ‘rescued’ by police in 28 incidents in 2019 alone. During the same period, seven alleged human traffickers (three Rohingya and four Bangladeshis) were killed in ‘gunfight’ with police. The discourse of ‘rescue’ has also been extended to Rohingya movements within Bangladesh; if they are found outside the camps, they are ‘rescued’ and sent back to the camp sheds.
Previously, human trafficking in Bangladesh was largely conceived of as the forced or deceived movement of women and girls for the purpose of prostitution. Now, within just a few years, trafficking is conceived of as any unauthorised movement across borders. Interestingly, Bangladesh does not have a specific law for ‘migrant smuggling’; therefore, all cases of unauthorised boat movements fall under the Trafficking Act. The Bengali word for both ‘trafficking’ and ‘smuggling’ is ‘manobpachar’; so, in media and public discourse, trafficking and smuggling are the same. This misunderstanding and the lack of a proper legal instrument clarifying the two concepts not only lead to misuse of the limited resources of the legal system, but also have harmful consequences in relation to the movement of refugees.
When I asked several police officials why they stop Rohingya from leaving the country, they usually said that it was for the ‘international image’ of the country. Evidently, Bangladesh is under pressure from the US, Australia and other Southeast Asian governments to increase its counter-trafficking efforts.
Various NGOs are also working on counter-trafficking projects, mainly creating awareness among people to discourage them from embarking on boats and helping to rehabilitate returned Bangladeshi trafficking victims from Malaysia.
Implications of the counter-trafficking measures
The counter-trafficking measures put in place by the Bangladesh government may be deemed ‘successful’ because, from May 2015 to until 2019, only a few boats with a small number of Rohingya refugees managed to reach Malaysia. However, more boats have started to make the journey in 2020.
The ‘boat-line’ remains a popular migration option for poorer refugees, as the ‘plane-line’ is more expensive and requires better social networks to collect the required documents. Recently, an unknown number of desperate Rohingya also embarked on the long and risky ‘walk-line’ to reach Malaysia by car and trekking across thousands of miles and several borders.
Due to crackdowns by the police, the dalal have become extremely cautious, and their services more expensive. Whereas previously they looked for potential migrants, now aspiring migrants look for them thorough trusted networks.
I have interviewed Rohingya refugees who undertook the boat journey and recently returned to Bangladeshi camps from Malaysia. They had mixed experiences, ranging from a smooth journey and being happy with the service of dalal, to dangerous journeys and being lost at sea or abused by the dalal because they failed to pay their fees. Many have also been arrested while working in Malaysia and spent months in detention there.
Most of the Rohingya I interviewed were generally aware of the risks of maritime migration. However, lacking the education and employment opportunities, and hope for their futures, they saw places like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia as options where they could fulfil their dreams and help their families by sending back remittances. Indeed, a significant number of Rohingya families support themselves by remittances, mainly from Malaysia and Saudi Arabia where approximately 100,000 and 250,000 Rohingya reside respectively. The Rohingya also migrate for the purposes of family reunification and marriage. Whereas previously mainly males undertook the journey, now increasing numbers of Rohingya women are also attempting to go to Malaysia, either to join their husbands or for prospective marriages.
When I spoke to one Rohingya man in Bangladesh who had managed to gain a higher education, against many odds, he told me,
‘An Australian government representative, along with senior officials, were visiting the camp. He asked the refugees why they would take such a risky journey by sea. I told him: “Imagine that you are being attacked now in this room, with guns and machetes, and this house is being burnt and the only way out is through the water on one side, would you not jump in the water?” Listening to my answer, they started to look at each other and could say nothing. Then one of them said: “Let’s take a photo together.” That is what they can do, taking photos. I have no problem being photographed; I did this many times before. It just changes nothing.’
While visiting NGOs working in the counter-trafficking space, I saw walls full of photos of awareness-raising activities with refugees. However, they were unable to offer the refugees a better alternative to the boat journey. While governments and NGOs promote safe migration for Bangladeshis, they cannot offer an alternative for the Rohingya.
During 2006-2010, only 920 Rohingya were resettled from Bangladesh to developed countries. The government of Bangladesh then stopped this process in 2010, citing it as a pull-factor and noting that only a small number of people were being resettled, with the rest remaining in Bangladesh. Consequently, unauthorised migration – either independently or with the help of an illegal facilitator – remains the only option for many to migrate to a safer third country.
The key point of this article is to prompt a deeper reflection on the refugee-unauthorised migration nexus, and the blanket criminalisation of all unauthorised movements of refugees from Bangladesh. The smuggling-trafficking discourse should be seen for what it is: not just as a humanitarian measure to ‘rescue’ people, but also as a strong border control regime which obstructs the movements of people seeking asylum from persecution.
Ashraful Azad is a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales. He completed BSS and MSS in International Relations from the University of Chittagong and MPhil in International Law from Monash University. He is also an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations, University of Chittagong (currently on study leave to pursue PhD). His experience includes working as a UNHCR protection officer in 2011-12 and as a research consultant with Equal Rights Trust, UK in 2015 where he wrote a report on the legal status of Rohingya in Bangladesh. Ashraful’s main research interests are critical migration studies, Rohingya refugees, irregular migration, and labour migration in Bangladesh. He also works as a Country of Origin Information expert for Bangladesh enlisted with Rights in Exile Programme (IRRI).