Ravaged Rohingyas: A True Tale of Trafficking

This article is part of AASYP’s Break the Chain 2021, which is a programme that highlights innovative solutions to modern slavery, human trafficking, and forced labour.

Trapped in the hands of malignant individuals is the world’s most persecuted community. Vulnerable groups, especially women and children, are caught up and exploited in an uncertain environment with basics of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (a pyramid of basic human needs with the most fundamental being air, food, and water) put at stake. The Rohingya exodus commenced when a military crackdown was launched by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militants. What followed was bloodshed, fleeing, and political turmoil.

In the name of ethnic cleansing, the perpetrators spell obliteration. Despite garnering massive global awareness and visits by humanitarian organisations such as delegations from the United Nations, human trafficking remains a pervasive problem.

The Rohingyas are at the crossroads of an identity and survival crisis. They are Muslims who used to reside in Rakhine, Myanmar. As Myanmar is a Buddhist-majority country, there arose a religious conflict that caused the majority to oust the Islamic community. This escalated into a refugee crisis with the Rohingyas effectively becoming stateless and dubbed the “boat people”.

Out of an estimated 2 million Rohingyas, about 1.2 million currently reside at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Despite having a roof over their heads, the problems they face are immense – from the breaching of basic humanitarian rights to the breeding of communicable diseases in squalid areas. This article primarily focuses on abuse, trafficking, and child labour.

Women are recruited as forced brides in the Rakhine state at very cheap costs and transported to Southern Thailand and Northern Malaysia. In the midst of their journey, they might be stranded in the ocean or left in thick forests where traffickers would demand hefty cash to continue their journey. Should they be unable to pay, they would be held hostage and deprived of essentials like water. They are also at risk of falling prey to sexual violence and sex trafficking. Ultimately, they become a commodity – an unfortunate and cruel fate.

With a striking streak of regret emanating from their faces, the Rohingya children are a testament to lost childhood. Having been exposed to the scathing reality of genocide since a tender age, they have to deal with constant insecurities and fear. This is accentuated by their inaccessibility to education that has been reserved for Bangladesh nationals, thereby hampering the Rohinhya children’s path to social mobility. In fact, some families give their children away through irregular or temporary adoption to cover living costs. Others are even manipulated and enslaved.

The issues are multifaceted. First, from a financial standpoint, the Rohinyas lack the funds to support themselves and are often enslaved by employers who demand free labour by leveraging on the labourers’ illiteracy and plight, even threatening them to succumb to trafficking and illegal labour. This reiterates the age-old adage that “born poor is a curse” for they are used, abused, and marginalised.

The second root cause stems from a legal perspective. Due to their undocumented status, it is easy for the Rohingyas to fall prey to abuse. Being classified under the category of “Forcefully Displaced Myanmar Nationals to Bangladesh”, they are subjected to restrictions including but not limited to lack of access to education.

Oftentimes, targeting the root cause is the solution. In the same vein, the Rohingyas need a sustainable source of livelihood to overcome financial constraints that may in turn shield them from abuse. One method is to educate children – a passport to social mobility. For the forthcoming generations, this would likely guarantee a better life as enjoyment of better job propsects comes with higher literacy. They would be less likely to be deceived into trafficking or child labour due to heightened awareness and reduced reliance on others. For adults, they can choose to reskill and upgrade in skills such as tailoring and pottery, which could fetch them considerable income.

There are multiple avenues to fund education and skills training. The first possibility would be programme funding from international organisations such as the United Nations along with the help of regional partners such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, they may not have adequate resources to allocate for crisis management in view of budget deficits or other priorities that may take precedence.

In this context, multinational corporations (MNCs) can be torchbearers by donating a lump-sum amount on the corporate social responsibility front. In fact, instead of dispensing a one-off amount, donations could be done in the form of microcredits, an idea pioneered by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus. For example, a small amount of loan can be granted for the purposes of pursuing education and starting a business. At the end of their education, they can also start their own social venture that generates jobs for other Rohingyas. This can slowly bloom into a healthy ecosystem, just like the start-up climate in the utopian world.

Another method is for companies to purchase “refugee bonds” from governments that match refugees to companies based on their skills. Such bonds would create a win-win solution. Companies recruit Rohingya employees to meet their manpower needs, in addition to boosting employer branding and reputation through service to community. In turn, Rohingyas are granted a secure job to meet their livelihood needs. Moreover, this creates a safe space for the refugees as the MNCs are made to comply with government regulations relating to worker safety and rights.

From a legal perspective, the legal status of the Rohingyas remains a critical issue with practical implications on the legal rights that they are entitled to. As they are susceptible to vicissitudes that often make their living environment temporary and uncertain, legal protections for the Rohingyas are necessary to promulgate their basic rights as well as protect the girls from harassment and children from labour.

The countries that are deeply embroiled in the Rohingya crisis are mainly Myanmar and Bangladesh. It boils down to an ideological conflict, exacerbated by growing political instability in Myanmar. While Bangladesh has granted refugee status to about 30 000 Rohingyas over the years, absorbing all 1.3 million Rohingyas at once would create a disproportionate economic burden on the nation.

As every country will understandably prioritise its own people, resolution of the Rohingya crisis remains a issue suspended on tenterhooks. Although diplomacy and compromise can be a remedy, entrenched mindsets about race, citizenship, and politics are often sensitive and could escalate to verbal wars. In the best interest of peacemaking, eradicating the Rohingya crisis and alleviating its effects is exigent. To increase the quality of life of Rohingyas, the proposals set out above that mutually benefit both stakeholders, that is, employers and Rohingyas, should be considered for implementation.

This article was written by Sivakami d/o Arunachalam, edited by Nathan Felix, and reviewed by Choo Qian Ke.

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