Thai authorities have refused to grant refugee status to hundreds of Rohingya who arrived through human traffickers.
PHUKET, Thailand — Roshida was languishing in a squalid displaced people's camp in western Myanmar when an unfamiliar man offered her a job in a nearby city. Unemployed with two children, she immediately agreed. The next day, she was packed into the belly of a cargo ship anchored in the Bay of Bengal.
"That's when I realized I had been sold," says Roshida, a 25-year-old ethnic Rohingya who only uses one name. She hasn't heard from either of her young children since.
She found herself in an airless room full of desperate captives, including mothers clutching infants and frightened teenagers crying for their parents. Some had been abducted, she says, while others had been promised jobs or arranged marriages in Malaysia. The boat lingered for several weeks near Rakhine state in western Myanmar, gathering about 400 people, mostly other Rohingya Muslims — a persecuted ethnic group from Myanmar — and Bangladeshis, before setting sail for Thailand. Passengers each received one cup of water and a scoop of rice daily. A Bangladeshi man who begged for water one morning was beaten to death and tossed overboard.
"When I was on the boat, I was crying. I missed my kids," recalls Roshida, now staying at a shelter in southern Thailand. "They told me, 'If you cry, I will beat you and throw your body into the sea.'"
She is one of thousands of people exploited by a flourishing human trafficking network that transports desperate and often unwilling Rohingyas and Bangladeshis to Malaysia through Thailand. Over 25,000 people have embarked on the perilous journey since the start of this year, with hundreds dying en route, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most new arrivals are held in transit camps in Thailand's Ranong and Phang Nga provinces before they are stuffed into trucks heading for the border with Malaysia.
For several weeks, Roshida was confined to a collapsing bamboo hut draped in muddy tarps somewhere in the jungles of Thailand's Songkhla province. Once there, the brokers demanded $1,600 to release her in Malaysia.
A hut in an abandoned trafficking camp in Phang Nga province, Thailand. Hanna Hindstrom
"I told them, 'You lied to me! I don't have any money.' So they burned me with cigarettes, and they beat me," she says, lifting her dress to reveal dark scars on her feet.
In less than a month, three people died from disease, she says, and women became the targets of verbal abuse and sexual violence.
"Smugglers would take young girls who looked attractive away into the forest nearby," she says. ""[The girls] refused to talk about it when they came back."
Fearing for her life, Roshida tried to escape three times. Twice she was captured by locals and returned to her traffickers. Each time she was sent back, they shackled her and beat her with wooden rods. On her third attempt, she ran into a Thai couple on a rubber plantation. They called the police.
But her ordeal didn't end there. Instead of helping her, Thai authorities accused her of entering the country illegally and jailed her for three months. In April she was finally transferred to a shelter for women and children. Now she is anxiously waiting for news about her children back in Sittwe, Myanmar.
Monitoring groups say a growing number of boat arrivals are being trafficked, coerced or misled by unscrupulous brokers. Members of Myanmar's persecuted Rohingya minority, who are denied citizenship and heavily ostracized in the Buddhist-majority country, are easy targets. Over 140,000 people are confined to official displacement camps in Rakhine, where they are unable to travel freely or secure decent work. Nearly 10 percent of the roughly 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar are estimated to have fled since a surge in violence between Buddhists and Muslims began in 2012.
"I owned a small shop in Sittwe, but everything was burned," says Roshida. "My husband turned to alcohol. I lost everything — my house, my business."
Treating victims as criminals
In 2014 the U.S. State Department downgraded Thailand to the lowest possible rating in its annual "Trafficking in Persons"report, citing accounts of Thai police and army officials cooperating with smuggling rings. Though the Thai government has shown little sympathy for boat people, choosing to treat new arrivals as criminals rather than victims or refugees, officials escalated their crackdown on human traffickers in May after uncovering a patchwork of mass graves scattered across southern Thailand.
Since then, Thailand has arrested about 80 people, including police officers and Interior Ministry personnel, on suspicion of complicity with human trafficking. But only one army official was among them, raising concerns that the Thai military junta — which seized power in a coup last year — is reluctant to target its brass. No one has been arrested in Phang Nga, a hub for trafficking, even though local volunteers are maintaining a 24-hour road checkpoint along a crucial transit route.
Thailand's crackdown has had a disastrous effect on victims. Thousands of people were cast adrift in the Andaman Sea after traffickers abandoned their ships and fled into hiding. Still, Thailand has steadfastly refused to open its borders to unwanted arrivals, opting to push boats back from shore. If they make it to land, men, who constitute the majority of boat people, are held in detention centers or prisons, while women, minors and those identified as trafficking survivors are mostly housed in shelters. Until March, Rohingyas were routinely deported to Myanmar. About 500 to 700 Rohingyas are estimated to remain in Thailand.
Rohingya migrants swim to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter after they jumped from a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea. Christophe Archambault / AFP / Getty Images
Trafficking victims have more rights than people who have been smuggled, according to Matthew Smith, the executive director at Fortify Rights, which is why "certain governments have been loath to consider these abuses in the context of trafficking." The problem, he said, is particularly acute in Thailand, where "authorities have consistently underestimated the number of survivors of trafficking."
Yet the Thai government insists that trafficking victims are processed in accordance with international standards. The governor of Phang Nga, Prayoon Rattanaseri, says that his province is a "role model" for victim protection and has identified over 150 trafficking survivors since last year. He blames language barriers and a dearth of Rohingya interpreters for any mistakes in registering victims.
At Roshida's shelter, only two of the 79 people there have been classified as trafficking victims. Both are Bangladeshi. One of them is Hassan, a 22-year-old from Dhaka who was drugged and abducted in Teknaf in southern Bangladesh last year. He recently testified in Thailand's first major case against human traffickers operating in the Andaman Sea. Unlike many other arrivals, Hassan has been able to earn a modest living working on a nearby rubber plantation.
Stuck in the middle
In late May, Thailand hosted a regional meeting to address the burgeoning boat crisis, with officials pledging to boosthumanitarian access for the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). But critics say Thailand, which has not signed the U.N. refugee convention, has been reluctant to fulfill its promises. U.N. agencies still have only restricted access to Rohingya boat arrivals, many of whom are kept in cramped detention cells without access to trauma counselors, proper health care or refugee status determination.
"[Thailand] must allow UNHCR to have unconditional access to do refugee status determination interviews and recognize the results," says Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Second, it should permit IOM to be directly involved in trafficking victim identification assessments and provide appropriate care for all those recognized as victims."
Rohingya migrants pass food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter to others aboard a boat drifting in Thai waters off the Andaman Sea.Christophe Archambault / AFP / Getty Images
Only a "small handful" of Rohingyas qualify for resettlement abroad, according to Vivian Tan, the UNHCR's spokeswoman in Bangkok, and these are the most vulnerable refugees, such as unaccompanied minors and women with young children. One of them is Abdul, a 13-year-old who was abducted from his dinghy near Sittwe last November.
"If I had wings, I would fly home right now," says Abdul, who has been stateless his entire life. He is now staying at a shelter in southern Thailand.
The United States has urged Myanmar to provide citizenship and rights to the Rohingya in order to stem the exodus. But officials have refused to budge, insisting that the Rohingyas arrived illegally from Bangladesh.
As a result, the vast majority of Rohingyas trapped in Thailand want to continue their journeys to Malaysia, fueling concerns that they will end up back in the clutches of smugglers and traffickers. Several women in Thai shelters are simply waiting in the hope that international agencies can help them join their husbands in Malaysia, with no idea of what to do if they can't. It is not uncommon for children and women to simply vanish from shelters despite being shortlisted for resettlement in the United States.
Although Thailand's crackdown has forced most smugglers into hiding, activists say it is only a matter of time before they return.
"The risk [of retrafficking] is certainly there," says Tan. "We've been quite concerned about reports of brokers approaching women and children in shelters. When we talk to survivors in Malaysia and Indonesia, we've learned that people who manage to leave detention centers [in Thailand] usually end up back in the arms of smugglers."
Roshida's only hope is that she can reach the United States and her children can join her.
"If I head back to Rakhine, I head back to death," she says. "There's no point going back there."