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Why the lull in human smuggling can’t last

A boat holding hundreds of migrants is detained by the Burmese navy in Irrawaddy Division in May 2015. (Photo: Ministry of Information)

World Day against Trafficking in Persons on 30 July was a moment to reflect on the situation in Southeast Asia and what has happened since the Bay of Bengal migrant crisis dominated headlines over a year ago. After the boats stopped, most experts warned that they would resume in late 2015 once rains subsided and weather conditions improved. We are more than half way through 2016 and the predicted flow of migrants out of Burma and Bangladesh has still not materialised. There are unconfirmed reports of small numbers moving out of Arakan State by boat, but far fewer than what was forecast. What has happened? Has migrant smuggling and trafficking in the Bay of Bengal been resolved? Are other methods or land borders being used?

Most observers believe that two basic factors are behind the pause. The first, and probably the most significant, is that the brokers and low-level authorities who arranged the smuggling and trafficking are lying low because the issue remains too high-profile. The second is that law enforcement crackdowns in Malaysia have made it a less appealing destination for irregular migrants, particularly Rohingya. Contrary to some reports, the new government in Burma does not seem to be a factor: younger generations of Rohingya, who represent most irregular migrants, apparently have little faith that recent political developments will improve their lives.

However, none of those factors represent a significant change to the long-term “push and pull” dynamics that fuelled the crisis. As memories fade, authorities and law enforcement will inevitably turn their attention to other matters, prompting a re-emergence of brokers. We expect to see the flow of migrants out of Arakan and Bangladesh resume at some point, although exact timing, numbers and method of movement are difficult to predict.

Certainly the transnational criminal networks that have been facilitating and exploiting this flow of migrants are intact, despite a few high-profile arrests in Thailand. Generally consisting of loosely-connected groups rather than hierarchical criminal organisations, the arrest of a few traffickers — no matter how important — is unlikely to cripple them: one link simply drops out of the chain to be replaced by another.

The challenge for law enforcement is therefore to engage in operations that are coordinated across the region to disrupt criminal networks in source, transit and destination countries simultaneously. Experts unanimously agree that regional coordination is the main ingredient for an effective response to smuggling and trafficking by sea. Investigating networks is complex and they cannot be dismantled by focusing on the perpetrators on board boats that have stopped. Transnational criminal networks involved must be traced from a vessel, through countries of transit back to the point of departure. All of which requires close cooperation.

Yet cooperation on its own is not enough. The keystone for any effective response to smuggling and associated trafficking is quality information and intelligence. Unfortunately a lack of regular reliable data and research in Asia makes it difficult for policy-makers to form an accurate picture of victims, how they are smuggled and trafficked, and the criminal organisations involved, forcing authorities to develop their strategies “in the dark”. Similarly, the criminal intelligence needed for successful investigations is often lacking. Even when authorities do have good intelligence they are often reluctant to share it among agencies in their own nation, let alone with those from a different country.

None of this is rocket science and the various high-level meetings that followed the May 2015 crisis called for better region-wide cooperation and information-sharing. So one year on, the time is ripe to reflect on how the region has performed against these pledges. There have been some broad positives: the signing of the ASEAN Convention against Trafficking in Persons in November 2015, for example, which once again saw ASEAN countries committing to strengthen cooperation on investigations and prosecutions.

Simply put, law enforcement cooperation in Southeast Asia can be slow and difficult. Recommendations made at the policy level in ASEAN generally fail to filter down into meaningful action. Part of the problem is the patchwork of different legal frameworks; institutional inertia also plays a role. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has therefore been stressing the importance of harmonising smuggling and trafficking legislation consistent with the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC), coupled with strengthening and expanding law enforcement cooperation mechanisms for a more immediate impact. But our long-term goal is mindset change: the region needs to believe in the benefits of law enforcement integration just as they do in the benefits of economic integration.

Of course law enforcement efforts alone are not adequate to prevent migrant smuggling and trafficking. As the UNTOC stresses, prevention efforts are needed to address root causes that lead a person into the hands of smugglers and traffickers in the first place. Nevertheless, in Southeast Asia migrant smuggling and trafficking are high-profit, low-risk crimes. This incentive structure has to change, and it can only be done through better regional cooperation and coordination of investigations and prosecutions. Without that, we will continue to see criminal exploitation, fraud, deception and mistreatment in the region.

Jeremy Douglas is the regional representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for Southeast Asia and the Pacific and former UNODC Representative for Pakistan. Benjamin Smith is the UNODC Regional Coordinator for Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Migrants.