New boatpeople: Creation of exclusion, inanity and inaction

OVER the last few weeks, the international community has witnessed yet another round of human disaster. It is aghast at the reports, photos and television footages of the new boatpeople of Asia – a mix of refugees, economic migrants and trafficked victims.

Many are desperate Rohingya refugees, fleeing systemic persecution of an apartheid regime in Myanmar, who were denied refuge in adjoining Bangladesh.

Some are economic migrants from Bangladesh seeking jobs while the third group consisted of the new slaves, who were either forcibly abducted from the Cox’s Bazar, Ukhia and Teknaf areas or were lured with promises of employment overseas.

Revelation of the existence of mass graves of the boatpeople and rescue of a few victims in the Thai side of the Thai-Malaysian border the week before had stirred international attention to this forsaken group.

This week, harrowing details are emerging from the Langsa makeshift camp of boatpeople who were rescued from the sea by Achenese fishermen defying instructions of their government.

Narratives of survivors provide a chilling account of vessels being marooned on high seas for lack of fuel, of abandonment of ship by the navigators, of denial of ration to additional members of the families, of murders committed by the traffickers and human smugglers, of passengers killing each other for control over dwindling supplies of food and water, of sexual violence against women and throwing of corpses overboard.

The stance of the Bangladesh government in denying access to the incoming Rohingyas and pushing them back to the high seas left the victims of violence from across the border with very little choice but to move on to new destinations through uncharted routes. Malaysia became the favoured destination of the distressed Rohingyas.

Some aspired to join their relatives and this route for them was a means of family reunification.

For the vast majority, Malaysia was a destination to secure refuge. The flow of Rohingyas through sea route became more pronounced since 2012 as violence against them increased in Myanmar.

Their movement to Malaysia encouraged other Bangladeshis to seek fortune through the same route. Within a short time they began tapping the services of the human smugglers to take them across to Malaysia for work.

The massive profit accrued from this human trade created conditions for the traffickers to cash in. They lured unsuspecting Bangladeshis with lucrative jobs and these victims were subsequently made targets of extortion.

When they failed to pay hefty amounts of ransom that was demanded of them, they (the victims) were subjected to servitude in the plantations. Initially there was a degree of denial about the extent of the crisis from the official quarters. The recent unfortunate unfolding of events have led the concerned agencies to come to terms with the grim reality.

However, the senior functionaries tasked with public administration and law enforcement are beginning to acknowledge that locally influential persons are scuttling all efforts.

Thus one finds that while exclusion of Rohingyas by the Burmese state is the principal cause of the emergence of the new boatpeople, the neighbouring governments’ refusal to grant asylum partly contributed to this illegal flow.

The inaction of the Bangladesh administration to take stern action against the criminals at the early stages had allowed the latter to bolster their network and capacity. It is gratifying to note that state functionaries are now acknowledging the reality. This gives hope that the problem will finally be addressed. — The Daily Star Bangladesh

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