By Engy Abdelkader
December 26, 2013
Amid continued communal strife in Myanmar, Muslim women and children are increasingly finding themselves in vulnerable situations that have yet to be adequately recognized and addressed. This post glimpses the related issue of human trafficking.
By way of background, Burma’s record on human trafficking has prompted the United States to place it on a Tier 2 Watch List for the past two years. The Watch List is reserved for countries that fail to comply with minimum standards — from preventing trafficking to investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of the crime to protecting victims — as set forth in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).
In Myanmar, security forces have subjected both Muslim men and women to forced labor. Women, however, have been reportedly forced into prostitution and other forms of slavery as well. In fact, according to a U.S. Department of State 2012 human rights report, Burmese officials have reportedly kidnapped Rohingya women and forced them into slavery on military bases.
Burmese security forces also systematically rape and assault women and girls which also contributes to human trafficking and exploitation.
Representative are experiences like Sakinah Kahtu’s, an 18-year-old Rohingya girl forced to leave her village in Rakhine State due to worsening sectarian violence to travel with human traffickers by sea to Malaysia together with other fleeing Muslims.
Her parents feared that if she remained, the Burmese security forces might sexually assault her, as they have a number of others, or may otherwise subject her to forced labor. In hopes of securing her safety, they paid traffickers nearly $300 to transport her to Malaysia.
Kahtu travelled by sea for 15 days in a vessel that carried approximately 500 passengers, including 60 women and children. She received one meal per day during her ordeal. Prior to arriving in Malaysia, however, Kahtu’s traffickers detained her in Thailand for three days.
There, a stranger and fellow Rohingya paid $2,520 to secure her release and complete her journey to Malaysia. In return, Kahtu’s fellow villagers allowed the young man to wed her.
Notably, many do not make it to their ultimate destination because they are arrested en route and detained by authorities in Thailand. Women and children detained at government run detention centers remain vulnerable to traffickers who have gained access to the buildings, where detainees should theoretically enjoy official protection.
Such traffickers may promise detainees reunification with family members, but after smuggling them out of the centers, rape the unsuspecting victim(s).
Such human rights violations have penetrated Myanmar’s borders with neighboring countries, such as Thailand and Bangladesh, in other ways as well. Both countries have been forced to absorb the swelling numbers of Rohingya refugees fleeing widespread and systematic religious and ethnic persecution in their native land. These refugees include increasing numbers of women and children.
Indeed, anti-Muslim sectarian clashes initially resulted in thousands of Rohingya men fleeing Burma in search of work and refuge; however, with communal violence escalating since June 2012, Rohingya women have begun fleeing the country together with their babies and children.
Illustrative is the sectarian violence that afflicted Myanmar’s Arakan State in June 2012, leaving tens of thousands of Rohingya men, women and children displaced. According to Human Rights Watch, as many as 35,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar as a result.
In fact, between June 2012 and May 2013, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) found approximately 27,000 people fled Myanmar. To help place these figures in proper perspective, during the same time period one year earlier in 2011, an estimated 9,000 people are believed to have fled.
Moreover, approximately one-half of those leaving Rakhine State’s capital, Sittwe, where living conditions have worsened with many living in squalid displacement camps, are women and children. Pursuant to the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Act, the Burmese government does not recognize them as citizens and deprives them of proper identification documents. Given their “stateless” status, women and children are highly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation.
Unfortunately, notwithstanding all of this, Thai and Burmese efforts to combat trafficking have been less than vigilant. For example, the Thai government has not investigated or prosecuted trafficking gangs and they continue to operate with impunity. Nor have Thai officials determined why traffickers can access women and children in the detention centers described above.
Thailand should exercise much more vigilance in identifying, investigating and prosecuting all those that facilitate trafficking. In the instance of organized criminal elements, officials should trace, freeze and confiscate related proceeds and provide unconditional assistance to victims regardless of their citizenship status or religious or ethnic identities. Thai officials should also address the demand-side factors contributing to the exploitation of women and children within their borders.
As to Myanmar, it prohibits human trafficking vis-à-vis its 2005 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law. But, its efforts to combat trafficking internally have been lacking, as evidenced by the egregious conduct of its own security forces depicted further above.
Moreover, Myanmar will remain a source country supplying prospective trafficking victims (fleeing religious and ethnic persecution) until it effectively addresses the underlying causes of persistent communal violence and abject poverty confronting its minority Muslim population.
As articulated by U.S. House Resolution 418, introduced by U.S. Congressman James McGovern (D-MA), Burma must end its persecution of all Rohingya people.
Indeed, the country’s credibility as an aspiring democracy is interconnected with the status of the very population it continues to persecute.
Engy Abdelkader is a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.