Migrant smuggling in Southeast Asia due to conflict, climate change, corruption: UN

The latest UNODC report on human smuggling comes amid a surge in Rohingya setting off on risky sea journeys to seek safety

Mitoon Chowdhurybdnews24.com
Published : 28 March 2024, 07:28 PM
Updated : 28 March 2024, 07:28 PM

Tens of thousands of people are smuggled every year in Southeast Asia, spurred by conflict, corruption, and climate-related disasters, according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The study, published on Tuesday, surveyed 4,875 migrants and refugees in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand and found that 83 percent said they had been smuggled into the country.

They included people from Myanmar, Bangladesh and other parts of Southeast Asia. Many were Rohingya who had made risky sea journeys in recent months in search of safety.


A significant portion of the migrants said they were fleeing conflict, violence and persecution in their home countries. One in four said that climate-related issues, such as flooding, storms, drought, extreme temperatures or disease among livestock and crops, influenced their decision to migrate through illegal channels.

People said they approached smugglers due to statelessness, lack of travel and identity documents, limited access to regular migration channels, and corruption. Many added they approached smugglers because they believed it was an easier option compared to regular migration.

“Migrant smuggling is often not a free or voluntary choice, but an act of desperation, to seek security, safety or opportunity, or freedom from the threat of harm, oppression or corruption,” says Masood Karimipour, regional representative of UNODC in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“The data shows that smugglers may be individual actors, loosely connected criminals, or organized groups. Bringing them to justice is an important part of protecting the people seeking safety and a better life.”

Refugees from Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Somalia frequently lack travel and ID documents and face a lack of safety, stability, and economic or educational opportunities in the countries they came from. Under the circumstances, smuggling can seem like the ‘least bad’ option for those seeking a sustainable solution or international protection.


Respondents said they usually interacted with smugglers who either worked alone (65 percent) or in loosely structured groups (13 percent).

However, the study found indications mong 8 percent of the smuggled people that there were higher levels of smuggler organisation. This was particularly notable among those smugglers operating from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Malaysia and Indonesia.

In more than two-thirds of cases, the person who was to be smuggled initiated contact with the smugglers, either by themselves or through friends and family (69 percent). Smugglers approached people intending to migrate in 31 percent of cases. Even then, only 3 percent of those smuggled said that smugglers pressured them to use their services.

In most cases – 87 percent – those seeking smuggling services contacted the smugglers by phone or in person, with 13 percent using social media.

Rohingya people, many of whom were already displaced to Bangladesh, were either sent directly to Malaysia or smuggled back to Myanmar before being sent to Malaysia by land or sea. Bangladeshi migrants were also smuggled to Malaysia along these same routes.

The report found that most migrants smuggled in from Southeast Asia – most commonly Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Somalia – usually started by using forged travel and identity documents to travel on commercial air carriers. Almost a third of the respondents received forged or fake travel or identity documents from smugglers.

On average, smuggled migrants said they paid $2,380 per person for smuggling fees, though there was massive variation (from $19 to $6,650) among the respondents. They paid in cash or by bank transfers.


Many of those smuggled were forced into labour and trafficking for forced labour, often by the smugglers themselves or employers connected to them. When smugglers promise jobs, the risks to migrants, such as debt bondage and trafficking, are high, UNODC found.

Three out of four respondents said they experienced some form of abuse during their trips. Migrants and refugees surveyed the military and police, smugglers, border guards, and criminal gangs as likely to perpetrate abuse. This could range from physical violence to bribery, extortion, sexual violence, and unlawful killing.

People from Somalia, Cambodia, and Myanmar were more likely to be victims of abuse.

Despite the hardships they endured, 48 percent stated they would have made the journey if they had known the conditions they faced beforehand. However, 40 percent said they would not have decided to go, while 12 percent were still undecided.


One in four of the smuggled migrants surveyed said they had to engage in corruption along the way. In many cases, they had to present officials with a gift, money or favours in exchange for a service.

There was collusion between smugglers and corrupt officials and payments of bribes to officials by smugglers or the smuggled. The corruption of officials also drove migrants to contact smugglers as they believed they needed their help dealing with state authorities.

Of the respondents, 28 percent said the smugglers had assisted in dealing with law enforcers and other state authorities.


Many of those fleeing conflict are members of the Muslim Rohingya minority of Myanmar, notes Al Jazeera.

For years, Rohingya had left Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where they were regarded as outsiders, denied citizenship, and subjected to abuse.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya had flooded into Bangladesh in 2017 in the wake of a brutal military crackdown on the bordering state of Rakhine. Myanmar has yet to repatriate the Rohingya and conflict is ongoing in the border regions as the military junta’s forces clash with separatist groups and rebels.

The recent violence has seen a surge in Rohingya people risking dangerous sea journeys from Bangladesh and Myanmar to try and reach safety in Southeast Asia.

On Friday, Mar 22, more than 70 Rohingya were presumed dead or missing after a boat carrying 151 capsized off the coast of Indonesia’s Aceh. Local authorities managed to rescue about 75.

If the death toll is confirmed, it will be considered the largest loss of life in such an incident this year, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

More than 2,300 Rohingya arrived in Indonesia last year, according to UNHCR data. It surpassed the number of arrivals in the previous four years combined.

Some 569 Rohingya had died or gone missing while trying to flee Myanmar or Bangladesh in 2023, the UNHCR said in January. It was the highest level since 2013. Survivors shared horrifying accounts of abuse and exploitation.

Estimates showed that nearly one in eight Rohingya attempting to cross the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal had died or gone missing, making it one of the deadliest stretches of water in the world.

Two-thirds of those attempting these deadly journeys are women and children. Most of them set off from Bangladesh.

[Written in English by Shoumik Hassin, edited by Biswadip Das]