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Human trafficking remains a significant problem in both Burma and Thailand, where the stateless Rohingya minority has become particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, a leading US report warned on Wednesday.
The annual trafficking in persons (TIP) report released by the US state department accused the Burmese government of fuelling forced labour and trafficking among the Muslim Rohingya by denying them citizenship and stripping them of basic rights.
More than 20,000 Rohingyas are estimated to have fled on rickety boats from Arakan state in western Burma, since two bouts of ethno-religious clashes with Buddhists last year. Many end up paying hundreds of dollars to “brokers”, who either abandon them en route, or sell them to traffickers.
“There were reports that some Rohingya asylum seekers transiting Thailand en route to Malaysia were sold into forced labor on Thai fishing boats, reportedly with the assistance of Thai military officials,” said the report.
Thailand also regularly deports migrant Rohingyas back to Burma, despite protests from human rights groups, where they may be subject to re-trafficking, often in collusion with local authorities. The TIP report accuses elements in the ethnic rebel group the Democratic Karen Benevolent (formerly Buddhist) Army of participating in the trade of ethnic Rohingyas.
Burmese authorities in Arakan state have also been implicated in fuelling forced labour, sex slavery and abuse. According to the TIP report, military personnel have kidnapped several Rohingya women from the state capital Sittwe and subjected them to sexual slavery on military installations.
Earlier this year, media reports revealed that a growing number of Rohingya women were being sold as unwilling “mail order brides” to Malaysia in order to meet the growing demand for wives among the refugee population.
“As far as the Rohingya are concerned, Burma has greatly increased their vulnerability to trafficking,” Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, an NGO that campaigns for the rights of Rohingyas, told DVB. “Segregation and restriction of movement have curtailed their access to livelihood; state’s persecution and arbitrary arrests have prompted many to flee abroad.“
Nearly 140,000 displaced Rohingya are currently estimated to be living in squalid camps in western Burma, where they are subjected to severe restrictions on their movements, work and family life.
Other ethnic minority populations in Burma were also identified as particularly vulnerable to trafficking and forced labour, especially in conflict-torn border regions, such as Kachin state.
“Military personnel and insurgent militia engage in the unlawful conscription of child soldiers and continue to be the leading perpetrators of forced labor inside the country, particularly in conflict-prone ethnic areas,” said the report, which ranks Burma on its Tier 2 “watch list” for the second year running.
The allegations came on the same day that the International Labour Organization (ILO) decided to lift all remaining sanctions against the former pariah state. Burma moved up from Tier 3 last year, the report’s lowest ranking, in large part due to its efforts to address forced labour in collaboration with the ILO.
Thailand, which was identified as a key destination country for Burmese trafficking victims, remained on the Tier 2 “watch list” for the fourth year running. It comes amid reports that three Burmese nationals were arrested in the Thai border town Mae Sot this week for running a prostitution ring using underage girls.
The report highlights the country’s sex tourism industry as a prominent incentive for the trafficking of women and girls. But labour rights campaigners in Thailand say the report is a “subjective” and “non-evidence” based study, which illustrates how poorly the US understands the sex industry.
Liz Hilton from the sex workers’ rights group, the Empower Foundation, insists that it is the criminalisation of sex work that is to blame.
“Look at New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalised — they’ve had no children in the sex industry, they’ve had no prosecutions for trafficking for nine years, and they’re Tier 1,” she told DVB. “So obviously the decriminalisation of sex work eliminates trafficking.”
Thailand spent US$3.7 million on anti-trafficking activities in 2012, but only assisted 270 victims. Hilton adds that this is a “bigger budget than they spend on climate change” or the women’s empowerment fund. Meanwhile, 350,000 migrants, mostly from Burma, were arrested for illegal entry in 2012, but only 57 were helped.
“[Forced work] is one tiny little tick of the exploitation in Thailand, whether it’s in the sex industry or the fishing industry or whatever,” said Hilton. “What needs to be reformed is the labour conditions in Thailand.”