Thailand Rohingya

Rohingya refugees sit in a boat as they are intercepted by Thai authorities. Many of those fleeing from Burma never make it ashore. Pic: AP.

The discovery of dozens of Rohingya bodies at a human trafficking camp in southern Thailand serves as a reminder that along the nearly 1,000-kilometer refugee passage from western Burma to southern Thailand lies a string of mass graves, both onshore and offshore, occupied by a single ethnic group. In its coverage of the discovery today, the Phuketwan newspaper carried testimony of a 15-year-old boy who, aboard a smugglers’ boat somewhere off the coast of Thailand or Malaysia, watched 34 trafficked Rohingya being thrown overboard. That sort of story is repeated countless times elsewhere—of mass drownings, of the casual dispensing of refugees by traffickers.

Before the Thailand government moves to condemn the brutalization of smuggled Rohingya, it’s worth remembering how its own officials have aided and profited from a trade suspected to be worth up to $250 million annually. With the rising profits has also come a greater sophistication in the trade: the boy who watched fellow travelers being pitched into the ocean said he only managed to survive because his boat had a desalination plant that supplied fresh water to his and other vessels carrying trafficked Rohingya. As Phuketwan notes, the clampdowns on onshore trafficking sites have moved the industry further “offshore”, and onto floating camps where the smugglers’ bounty is held until the next link in the trafficking chain running from Burma (Myanmar) to Thailand is ready to take them. Until demand is curtailed, traffickers will keep coming up with new ways to ensure the industry stays afloat.

It’s a depressing illustration of how a people who were dehumanised at home decided to flee, only to become, along the route, commoditized, and when their profitability waned, were rendered dispensable. One man kept in a jungle camp in southern Thailand had an $1,800 price tag placed on him. “As the smugglers beat Sabur in their jungle hide-out, they kept a phone line open so that his relatives could hear his screams and speed up payment of $1,800 to secure his release,” Reuters reported in 2013.

When they can no longer be bought—perhaps because prolonged torture by traffickers in camps means they are unable to work—they become a burden, and will most likely be killed. For traffickers, the moral inhibitions that would guard against cruel treatment diminish every time new articles of trade come ashore. The complicity of Thai officials makes this practice appear, in their eyes, all the more “okay”.

At every stage in the trade there exists a facilitating mechanism that keeps Rohingya crossing the ocean. In western Burma, the government and local Rakhine community makes their lives simply untenable, so they flee, thus making the Burmese government a key player in the supply end of the chain. Perhaps they’ll go to Bangladesh, where only around 27,000 can live in official UN accommodation, and the other 300,000 or so in squalid camps. So they may flee again, lured by the smugglers’ promises of work in Malaysia—a Muslim majority country where they believe they’ll find sanctuary. It may be only several days into the crossing that, as fellow travelers fall ill and are pitched overboard, they begin to realize the duplicity that underpins the trade, and which illustrates that wherever they go—home or abroad—they are essentially expendable. The demand side—from the fishing trawlers where many end up in indentured labour, to wealthy husbands looking for a bride—feeds directly off their persecution in Burma. For them, and for the third parties in Thai officialdom, Rohingya disenfranchisement is highly profitable, and will continue to be so. As long as this remains the case, the mass graves will grow.