Migration: the clock is ticking in Asia too

While the headlines focus on migration to Europe, a crisis is unfolding in South East Asia as the horrors of human trafficking and exploitation mount. It's imperative that South East Asia produces a regional response.

Pratibha Singh
30 September 2015
Burmese migrants on the Thai/Burma border (Matt Van Saun/Demotix)

Burmese migrants on the Thai/Burma border (Matt Van Saun/Demotix)While the world has set its eyes upon the situation of refugees and migrants arriving into European territories, the Asian crisis has gone largely unnoticed. This region too has been in a state of tremendous flux when it comes to migration. A snapshot of the giant human trafficking industry in Thailand reveals that not only has it long been a host country, but that it is also used as a point of transit by human traffickers who push millions into slave jobs each year. Research conducted in 2010 revealed that 23 percent of Cambodians deported from Thailand had previously been trafficked. Similarly, around 53 percent of workers in the sea food industry in Samut Sakhon experience forced labor.

The US Government has listed Thailand as one of the worst places in the world when it comes to human trafficking. Though the Thai government has taken anti-trafficking measures, such as formulating the Anti-Trafficking law in 2008, as well as forming special task forces to crack down on the traffickers, the implementation has been weak and the problem by and large has continued unabated. Thailand is one of the emerging powers in a region where neighboring countries like Burma, Cambodia and Laos are either scarred by years of political instability or have been railing under extreme poverty conditions; naturally Thailand attracts migrants as it offers more favorable conditions by comparison.

Migrants are being increasingly hurled by traffickers into ‘camp boats’ held off-shore in the Indian Ocean. Abdul Kalam, who was working as an adviser for the police in Thailand, spoke about the refugee situation in a recent interview to the Guardian. People are being taken off shore in tanker ships and held for months at a time, he explained. These tanker ships are effectively refugee camps. One such ship, he commented, “has been out for two months and is moving all the time. The ship has got 2,000 people on it. The traffickers are relocating their camps because so much money is involved”.Among those on board are Burmese. People from Burma continue fleeing the instability in their country, where they have been subjected to human rights abuses for years.

The South East region so far has failed to arrive at any consensus to address the situation of these refugees and migrants and has let the issue explode, fueling the mushrooming of the human trafficking industry. Burmese migrants have been escaping to the porous borders of Thailand for many years were they have been subjected to kidnappings, slavery and near starvation by human traffickers. As documented by Human Rights Watch, women are sold into brothels and are beaten and tortured relentlessly until they succumb. Escape is nearly impossible; certain brothels in the South of Thailand are surrounded by electrically charged barbed wires and armed security guards.

The tactics used by brothels rip women of any last remnants of dignity and perseverance that might have remained after being forcibly displaced. In Half the Sky, Sheryl WuDunn refers to a fifteen year old Thai girl who was forcibly made to eat dog excrement so as to crush her self-esteem and humiliate her to an extent that the desire for escape entirely left her.

Women from the neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos also form a huge share of trafficked persons in Thailand where they face everything from sexual exploitation to arbitrary detentions. Thai officials often collude with the brothel owners and do not comply with the procedures prescribed under international law.

Some women are also coerced into the seafood industry and forced to work under life threatening conditions where they face several occupational hazards. Thailand’s seafood industry is heavily reliant on human labour, employing more than 650,000 people with a turnover of 7.3 billion dollars in 2011. Vulnerable communities like Rohingya Muslims from Burma are being increasingly trafficked into these food farms. One woman interviewed by the Guardian mentioned how the smuggling boat she was travelling on was hijacked by armed men as they made their journey from Burma across the open sea. Many children have reported that they were forced to work as beggars or sellers in the flower industry. However, due to excessive focus on the sex industry, coercions into fishing and construction industries are barely highlighted.

No place for sanctuary

Thailand does not recognize “refugees” and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. This lack of legal status makes people more vulnerable to such exploitation.Taking advantage of the desperate conditions of migrants and refugees, traffickers force them into slavery jobs that are a direct outcome of debt bondage. These migrants incur large debts which soar to an amount that leads them into the trap of slavery.

“Although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never heard of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself” said Abraham Lincoln. This statement holds some water in the case of Thailand, since here the cultural acceptance of the sex economy is deeply entrenched. It will require a major overhauling of power structures to bring about positive change in this scenario. The sex economy has been flourishing in Thailand for centuries and since most Thai men do not see it as a problem, this feature is further reproduced in policy actions taken in political areas which are dominated by men. Women in Thailand are still struggling to bridge the gaps in Thailand’s socio-economic and political arena, consequently issues concerning primarily women receive scarce attention.

With formal political channels stalled, more direct action must be taken. Nations such as Nepal and Kenya have adopted the use of community radios to keep human trafficking under control. In Nepal, radio shows inform people living in the border villages about the tactics used by traffickers to smuggle them across the borders. In Kenya, people are bringing the issue of human trafficking to the fore by disseminating relevant information by producing content that the audience can easily relate to. They expose the reality behind human trafficking by bringing together a plethora of experiences from people who have directly suffered the horrors of trafficking.  

Thailand could use a similar model to spread information about the dangerous consequences of human trafficking. Community radios can be used to promote citizen journalism where people can exchange information regarding the consequences of trafficking. The community radio landscape in Thailand still, nevertheless, has certain barriers. Some community radio stations are still waiting to get their licenses approved, for example. Another barrier which Thailand has to overcome in the arena of community radio is to increase women’s representation. Research suggests that men dominate this sphere, a fact which inadvertently narrows down the possibility of catering to women specific issues.

A further challenge remains to document women’s lives post trafficking, an under researched phenomenon both in the media and in academia. What we do know is that many women suffer from serious health issues. They have been subjected to sexual violence; contraceptive methods are almost nonexistent in the brothels which make them more vulnerable towards HIV/ AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The brothel owners resort to measures like providing women and children with drugs and other means of torture to force dependence and complicity. This makes it tougher for them to return to normal lives. Many also suffer from mental health problems like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Both collective efforts and political will are needed to reintegrate these women into the society and provide them with alternative means of employment. Community measures such as radios are essential to start a dialogue at the grass-roots. But states in the neighbouring regions must also take the lead and regonise that this is a regional phenomenon. The regional response being observed in the context of the European ‘migration crisis’ needs to be replicated in South East Asia. For here too unfurls a crisis punctuated by great human suffering. Much has been debated about the situation of migrants in Europe, it is imperative that this chapter in South East Asia is reopened.

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