02/05/2015, 00.00
THAILAND - NEW SLAVES
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Rohingya, victims of human trafficking in Thailand

by Weena Kowitwanij
Exploitation of workers, children and human trafficking are growing in the country. Myanmar Muslims are among the most affected. A thriving trade worth millions of dollars has developed along the routes of despair that though Thailand lead to Malaysia. It is necessary for Rohingya to regain their sense of self-worth, dignity and rights.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) - Many critical situations have set off alarm bells in Thailand in terms of individual and collective human rights. They include fishermen forced to work dangerous and gruelling shifts without any legal protection; teenagers and children, from Laos or inland areas of the country forced into prostitution or begging on the streets of the capital or in trendy tourist resorts; and northern hill tribes and minorities forced to beg or emigrate to enrich their exploiters. They also include Rohingya - a Muslim minority from Myanmar forcibly kept stateless by its own government, and one of the world's most exploited ethnic groups by human traffickers.

As human trafficking increased last year, the country sank lower in terms of fighting human trafficking with an overall "unsatisfactory" ranking. Child labour and prostitution are widespread. In the latest episode, on 17 January Thai police, in cooperation with the Children and Woman Foundation, found 70 underage Laotians brought in illegally to work in brothels and karaoke bars in the southern province of Suphanburi.

Among the exploited workers and abused children, one ethnic group stands out more than any other: the Rohingya. Originally from Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, the members of this Muslim group have had to leave their country of origin - where their rights are denied - in search of asylum in predominantly Muslim nations like Bangladesh, Malaysia or Indonesia. In most cases, Thailand is a stage in their journey of hunger, misery and despair.

Thai state officials and members of local governments have become involved in trafficking Rohingya, selling them to modern-day slavers who put them to work on farms, on fishing boats, or in factories. Here, employers usually seize their papers, passports and work permits, keeping them in conditions of semi-slavery.

Some Rohingya have tried to escape abroad, in most cases to Malaysia, where friends or relatives have already emigrated. However, each Rohingya has to pay 40,000-50,000 baht - the equivalent of US$ 1,300-1,600 - before they can embark on their journey of hope. Added to this are transport costs, around three thousand dollars.

At present, there are no reliable data on the number of Myanmar Rohingya transiting through Thailand for other points of destination. An estimated 1,300-1,500 were detained in 2014, down from 2,000 in 2013. However, these are conservative figures.

In 2013, some 53,000 Rohingya transited through the Bay of Bengal, which separates Myanmar from Bangladesh. Another 40,000 did the same in 2014.

Bangkok has no specific rules against people smuggling. The exception is a 1979 law adopted for refugees from Myanmar and Indochina, which allows refugees to stay only for a limited period of time.

The lack of rules and the denial of Rohingya's basic rights has created a market worth millions. Considering that in 2014, 53,000 Rohingya were caught up in this illegal trade, at a base cost of US$ 1,700 per individual, their total value stands at 84 million dollars.

Activists defending the rights of the Muslim minority explain that it is essential to restore Rohingya's dignity and sense of self-worth so that they are more than the victims of exploiters and unscrupulous traffickers.

Nevertheless, in the first weeks of 2015, Rohingya have become again unwilling front-page news. On 11 January, authorities in Nakhonsrithamraj province discovered a group of more than 300 of them, travelling illegally.

Police took 97 into custody, after finding them crammed in five lorries, whilst the others were able to hide in a rubber plantation. They also arrested the drivers.

Inside one of the vehicles, they found the body of a woman who had died of hunger and exhaustion. Five other were taken to hospital in poor health. One died a few days after hospitalisation from serious injuries.

The group's final destination was Malaysia, where they wanted to find a job and start a new life with their families.

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