BANGKOK— For years, oppressed Rohingya from Myanmar and impoverished Bangladeshis risked perilous sea journeys on rickety wooden boats in search of a better future. Many headed for Malaysia.
In recent weeks, clandestine transit routes through Thailand have been shut down, and thousands of people who chose an alternate route by boat have been stranded on the seas. Following international pressure, Indonesia and Malaysia have offered them temporary shelter.
The plight of the Muslim Rohingya and Bangladeshis became front page news. And the story has stayed there with the discovery of mass graves in jungle camps on both sides of the Thai-Malay border.
Many news reports, officials and analysts have interchangeably used the terms “trafficked” and “smuggled” when referring to the boat people.
However, there are critical distinctions between the two.
To put it simply: 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.
“Both are forms of illegal migration and should be a criminal offense in all States as defined by relevant domestic legislation,” said David Hammond, a British barrister who is the founder of Human Rights at Sea.
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.
“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,” said Hammond.
So are the Bangladeshis and Rohingya being smuggled or trafficked?
Turning Smuggling Clients into Trafficking Victims
That distinction is debated among diplomats, officials of international agencies and rights groups.
It “certainly started out as a smuggling route,” according to Jeffrey Labovitz, the chief of mission in Thailand for the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “One hundred sixty thousand people have left (Bangladesh and Myanmar) since 2012. And these people have sat at dinner tables and over teas and coffee with community members and thought about how they can do this journey and how they can get enough money to pay.”
But IOM officials, those at other U.N. agencies and activists have also documented stories of abductions and young women sold as child brides.
“That is slavery and trafficking,” IOM’s Labovitz told VOA.
Minors are not considered to have free will, so ostensibly they can also be considered victims of trafficking.
“So there’s a mixture in these different groups,” said Labovitz.
Arrangements for final payment were made when migrants reached the camps in Thailand and that is where there were problems with the “ruthless businessmen,” as Labovitz refers to the smugglers.
Sometimes families back home could not pay. Payments were stolen. Arrangements with brokers fell through. Prices suddenly increased.
“It is a situation in which human beings are being regarded as property,” said Fortify Rights executive director Matthew Smith. “They’re being tortured and coerced into raising money to buy their own freedom. And that’s a deeply exploitative situation – preying on the desperation of asylum seekers.”
Torture Begins When Smuggled People Can’t Pay
“They’re put into these terrible situations where they are extorted and they’re tortured and they’re held in captivity and starved to death,” said Labovitz. “Now murder, rape, extortion – those are all terrible, terrible crimes – and some of these cases it’s probably trafficking, too. It certainly initially starts off as smuggling.”
While some officials see trafficking in the backdrop to a vast smuggling operation, many activists portray the network as being run by traffickers.
“We are not suggesting that every single person who has crossed the Bay of Bengal would meet the elements of human trafficking,” said rights activist Smith, speaking to VOA via Skype from the Oslo Freedom Forum. “But these are human trafficking syndicates that are bringing people from point A to point B. And the terms of consent change once the Rohingya or Bangladeshis board the boats.”
The countries along the network have generally turned a blind eye to the trafficking aspect and allegations their officials — in the military, police and at the local government level — have been involved.
It is a particularly sensitive matter in Thailand, where a military junta runs the kingdom, which last year was placed by the U.S. State Department on its lowest Tier 3 level in its Trafficking in Persons annual report.
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.
“So this is part of the reason why we believe certain 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,” argued Fortify Rights’ Smith.
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.
Including destitute economic migrants, a total of 25,000 people are believed to have taken boats from Bangladesh and Myanmar in the first three months of 2015. That is double the number of the same period last year.
One country, far outside the region, has offered to resettle all of the Rohingya.
It is Gambia, a small impoverished West African nation where 90 percent of the population is Muslim.
“As human beings, more so fellow Muslims, it is a sacred duty to help alleviate the untold hardships and sufferings fellow human beings are confronted with,” read a Gambian government statement.
Gambia has appealed to the international community to send tents, bedding, household materials and medicine to help it establish “habitable camps with decent sanitary conditions.”
Gambia, ironically, has faced a mass exodus of its own people due to oppression and economic problems, making it a poor candidate for resettlement of the Rohingya.
The United States has offered assistance with resettlement, pledging to take a leading role in any multinational effort organized by the U.N. refugee agency.
Thailand will host a meeting Friday to discuss the continuing humanitarian crisis. Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and the United States are among the countries that will attend. The U.S. delegation will be led by Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.
A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA’s Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.