Slave trade of the 21st century

Abdul Matin
Published : 18 May 2015, 01:19 PM
Updated : 18 May 2015, 01:19 PM

The recent discovery of several grave sites of trafficked people in a remote jungle of Thailand and the harrowing investigative reports on trafficking of poor job seekers from Bangladesh by the news media unveiled perhaps the darkest side of the 21st century: the slave trade. The exhumed bodies from the gravesides belong mostly to persecuted Rohingyas from Myanmar. The multi-million dollar slave trade has been going on for years. A United Nations High Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) report says some 25,000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers' boats from the Bay of Bengal between January and March this year – almost double the number over the same period in 2014.

The stories of the surviving victims are traumatic. Usually, local agents lure prospective job seekers by promising lucrative jobs in Malaysia and charge several hundred thousand taka per person. Once they fall into the trap, they are chained, tortured, and shipped to Thailand where they live in makeshift bamboo cages, are allowed little or no food, and repeatedly tortured for payment of ransoms. They are released only after payment of a ransom, amounting to taka two hundred thousand or more, by the relations of the victims in their home countries. If no ransom is paid, they are sold as slaves to Thai fishermen or as construction workers in Malaysia. They are forced to work without salary. Some are sold as slaves even after payment of ransom. The discovery of the grave sites near the camps suggests that some of the victims are either tortured or starved to death.

Surprisingly enough, the slave trade has been continuing even after discovery of the grave sites in Thailand. Recently, Malaysia turned away two vessels carrying hundreds of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh while one boat was found drifting in Thai waters. On May 15, nearly 800 migrants were brought ashore to the east coast of Aceh in Indonesia. An estimated 6,000 fortune-seekers are believed to be trapped in crowded wooden boats, according to officials and activists in the region. With food and clean water running low, some could be in grave danger. The mere number of migrants and the barbarism with which they are being treated and abandoned at high seas without food and water by the traffickers unveil the scale and severity of the human tragedy.

The United Nations has called upon the authorities of Southeast Asian countries to keep their borders and ports open to the vulnerable people stranded on smugglers' boats. The United States urged the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand to refrain from pushing back arrivals of new boats carrying Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya at sea. The masterminds of the trade are believed to be in Thailand with agents in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Some members of the law enforcing agencies of Thailand may be associated with the illegal trade.

Often we read stories of the rescue of victims from sunken boats around our coastline but hardly any legal action is taken against the traffickers. Some cases were filed but no verdict has been awarded as per available reports. The job seekers are not warned properly against taking risky journeys. Had there been any such move, the slave trade would not have reached the current massive scale with such a tragic end.

Human trafficking is not confined to our region only. At least 700 people were feared dead after a boat carrying mostly African migrants had capsized off the Libyan coast last month. According to the UNHCR, more than 35,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea since the beginning of 2015. In 2014, approximately 219,000 refugees and migrants sailed across the Mediterranean. It is estimated that 3,500 people died at sea in 2014. "Gangs of criminals are putting people on a boat, sometimes even at gunpoint," Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said. "They're putting them on the road to death, really, and nothing else."

The European Union firmed up plans to crack down on smugglers in the Mediterranean on May 14 as Italy said another 2,000 migrants were rescued at sea. Germany said it was confident of winning UN Security Council approval for an ambitious EU naval military operation, part of a wider plan to stem the flow of people risking their lives to reach Europe from the shores of North Africa. In an effort to destroy the human traffickers' "business model", the EU wants to be able to identify, intercept, and possibly destroy the smugglers' boats in Libyan waters, something that would require a United Nations resolution.

Can force alone stop the migration?

An international effort is needed to address the issue of illegal migration. More awareness about the impending danger is needed to prevent desperate job seekers from taking any desperate step. All human traffickers must be brought to justice by the local law enforcing agencies. Vigilance must be increased along coastal areas to prevent sailing of boats with illegal job seekers. It is encouraging to note that some traffickers have already been arrested in Thailand and Bangladesh. Prime Minister of Thailand gave a deadline for a complete scrutiny of all areas for possible detention camps and graves related to trafficked people. It is suspected that there are slave camps in Malaysia also. All such camps and the likely hideouts where slave labourers are detained or employed must be unearthed and dismantled.

Policing activities alone may not always achieve the desired results unless the root causes of illegal migration are identified and addressed. The Rohingya issue in Myanmar must be resolved urgently. The Rohingyas are practically stateless in their own country. Steps should be taken so that no Bangladeshi migrant can be allured by anyone to undertake such risky journeys.

The international job markets which absorb illegal workers should simplify the procedures and widen the scope for legal recruitment of genuine job seekers from abroad. Lastly, the UNHCR must take up the issue more seriously and coordinate the activities of the countries, supplying and recruiting labourers, in order to reduce the illegal human trafficking to a negligible level. If we fail to do so, the posterity will not forgive us for practicing a scandalous trade that should have been a matter the past when slaves were chained, shipped, and sold in open markets like cattle.

Dr. Abdul Matin is a retired nuclear engineer.