The recent discoveries of a cluster of mass graves in Malaysia and Thailand at sites of camps operated by gangs of traffickers have added an utterly grim chapter to the migrants’ tale of unimaginable suffering. Evidence and testimonies from some of the ‘lucky’ migrants suggests that many of the migrants were severely tortured and killed by their handlers.
These camp ghettos, situated mostly at the coastal borders of Malaysia and Thiland are said to have been set up for Bangladeshis and Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. While the Bangladeshi migrants were perhaps looking for better economic opportunities in abroad, the Rohingyas have been victims of the ongoing oppression of the Myanmar government and of deadly violence by both state and non-state actors i.e. the militant Buddhist communities.
Nevertheless, a huge number of people have left Bangladesh on this illegal route to find better fortune. But the broker, the smuggler, the boatman and most importantly fate betrayed them altogether, putting them in the darkest corner of human slave cages in deep jungles at Thai border.
Perilous journey of the Boat People at Sea: Willing or unwilling?
Different news reports, officials and analysts have used two terms simultaneously, “trafficked” and “smuggled” when referring to the boat people. However, there are critical distinctions between the two. Smuggling involves transporting people who go willingly across borders by irregular or illegal means. Trafficking involves deceiving or exploiting those being transported and is frequently associated with human slavery.
Most countries and international organizations reference the language in the supplements of the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, known as the Palermo protocols on trafficking (which entered into force in 2003) and smuggling (2004), for their definitions.
As suggested by the Asian Human Rights Commission, “In incidents of both trafficking and smuggling the human rights of those subject to either regime may well be ignored as they themselves are subjected to abuse, exploitation and in the current context, abandonment at sea.” Now the question rises, are the Bangladeshis and Rohingya being smuggled or trafficked?
Statistics based on interviews and surveys says, both are the cases for our illegal migrants abroad. Especially a big number of children are trafficked along with the elders, which is clearly a violation of our National legal frameworks for child safety and International instruments like the Child Rights Convention, 1989 (UNCRC). Some information of abduction and trafficking of the tourists are even also found. However, both the parties use the clandestine smuggler routes to reach the Thai-Malay borders. Both the parties ‘sell’ their ‘goods’ at a number of ports, where the ownership of victims are shifted from hand to hands. This complex system of smuggled trafficking has made the determination of status of the victims as well as their protection a bit difficult.


Legal Protections

When people are smuggled they are regarded as illegal migrants. If they have been trafficked they are considered victims of trafficking. That triggers a different body of rights under domestic and international laws.

This explains why some of the governments in the region are very hesitant to regard any of these people as victims of trafficking, because it would require a certain type of other response from them – a more rights-respecting response, frankly. Myanmar considers those who departed Rakhine state to have been smuggled, not trafficked, according to recent government statements.

One of the region’s wealthiest countries, Australia, with a long tradition of accepting immigrants, has taken a hard line under the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott of refusing to accept those who board boats. Most of the other countries have made clear they are not keen to take in the Rohingya or the Bangladeshi migrants, fearing that accepting a few will invite many more.

Nevertheless, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed last week to provide the migrants with one-year shelter. Indonesia says Rohingya can stay for a year while Bangladeshis will be repatriated. It is unclear what happens after a year, and both countries have called on the international community to help with resettlement options.  Thailand has offered “humanitarian help” but not shelter. More than 100,000 refugees, mostly from Myanmar’s other ethnic groups, have been living in border camps for decades, and Thailand says it can’t afford any more.


Unfortunately, most of the governments of Developing countries have a strong tendency to write off all its poor citizens who do not follow the legal route to go abroad; and Bangladesh is no different. Whether such people face any hardship and they may perish – the state has no concern with the way they live or die. The plight of Bangladeshi migrant workers in conflict with the law abroad may have its roots in the government’s certain policies but this offers no solution to the humanitarian aspect of the matter.

The government needs to realize that the illegal migrants do not necessarily lose all their basic rights, especially their rights to a fair trial and to appropriate remedy and redress. It should not be too much to expect our authorities to extend legitimate relief to Bangladeshi illegal migrants in distress abroad, and to see that they do not suffer more than what they deserve. Most importantly, the culprits behind the neo-slave trade of this twenty-first century must be hunted down for exemplary punishments.