Bangladesh and Burma: the Rohingya crisis Contents

7Safe migration

World Humanitarian Summit Communique: promote migration that is safe, regular, and orderly.

Potential boat exodus

143.In May 2015, boats packed with hundreds of desperate Rohingya refugees were stranded at sea with no South East Asian country willing to allow them entry. The UN called on Malaysia and Indonesia to respect international law and offer help but they used reports of the presence of economic migrants as an excuse to turn the so-called ‘boat people’ away.” The UNHCR estimated that human traffickers took 25,000 people by boats from January to March in 2015.243 Following the recent violence against the Rohingya in Burma the UNHCR have said:

Thus far, we have not seen any movement onwards from Bangladesh–but our offices stand ready to assist should new arrivals come. The Government of Thailand recently said it was “preparing to receive people fleeing fighting in Myanmar” and send them back “when they are ready.” Malaysia has said: “Malaysia’s coast guard will not turn away Rohingya Muslims fleeing violence in Myanmar and is willing to provide them temporary shelter.” India is tightening border controls, increasing border guard presence, and has threatened to use “chilli spray” on Rohingya trying to cross.

144.ODI refers to these countries as ‘reluctant hosts’ with:

… a chequered history of turning a blind eye to Rohingya asylum seekers entering and remaining in their countries, and in rarer cases refusing entry. Bangladesh and Malaysia have been uneasy and restrictive hosts–their reluctance stemming from a range of historical and contemporary issues.244

The UNHCR estimated the spread of Rohingya in the region to be:

However, the figures seem to be disputed as the following map has been put together by Al Jazeera based on UNHCR and IOM data:

Aljazeera website

145.Human Rights Watch has criticised the Thai authorities’ response so far following the meeting of the Internal Security Operations Command chaired by Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha which announced Thai authorities will enforce a three-step action plan:

First, the navy will intercept Rohingya boats that come too close to the Thai coast. Then, upon intercepting such boats, officials will provide fuel, food, water, and other supplies on the condition the occupants agree to travel onward to Malaysia or Indonesia. Lastly, any boat that somehow manages to land on Thai shores will be seized, and immigration officials will apprehend and put Rohingya men, women and children in indefinite detention.246

146.DFID recognises the very real risk of people trafficking from the camps in Bangladesh as “a cross-border area with known organised smuggling and crime networks.”247 In May 2015 the Guardian uncovered a huge trafficking industry of Rohingya to work in the shallow fishing industry. Reporters had found that vast transnational trafficking syndicates had been holding thousands of Rohingya migrants captive in jungle camps selling them on to the fishing industry boats, frequently with the knowledge and complicity of some Thai state officials. It reported that in some cases, Rohingya migrants held in immigration detention centres in Thailand were taken by staff to brokers and then sold on to Thai fishing boats. Other Rohingya migrants say Thai officials collected them from human traffickers when they arrived on the country’s shores and transported them to jungle camps where they were held to ransom or sold to fishing boats as slave labour.248

147.Dr Champa Patel told us that as the monsoon ends and sailing season starts, people would increasingly be leaving by ships as was seen in the May 2015 crisis. However, she warned that the response from south east Asian nations, if it was anything like what they had done previously, would be inadequate to the scale of the problem.249 We questioned both the Bangladesh Deputy High Commissioner and the Minister what preparations were being made for a potential exodus by boat now that the monsoon season was ending. The Bangladesh Deputy High Commissioner told us:

On the boat exodus, if you are particularly talking about the Rohingyas, we have one of the longest sea beaches, perhaps the longest unbroken sea beach in the world. It is about 90 miles long. These are all coastal areas where they are. These are desperate people that we are talking about and they will take desperate measures, but that is again why it is important to have them contained in one place. We do have a coastguard. Its size is not very large, but we try to patrol the coastal area to ensure that there is no boat exodus. But I do not think the largest coastguard in the world would be able to patrol any country’s territorial water.250

148.DFID’s response to the possibility of a potential sea migration was:

Preventing the further displacement of Rohingya from Rakhine, whether by land or by boat, remains an important priority. The UK’s five point plan is intended to reduce the possibility of further population movements. Implementing the Rakhine Advisory Commission’s recommendations will be key to ensuring stability in Rakhine State and preventing a further exodus in the longer term. The UK stands ready to support when conditions allow.251

We asked DFID for written evidence on what it was doing specifically to prevent trafficking and modern slavery and it responded:

We also recognise the risks of trafficking and other forms of exploitation faced by Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. DFID will continue to work closely with partner organisations in Cox’s Bazar to understand the risks and respond accordingly.252

149.This response seems at odds with the urgency of the Prime Minister’s call for action to end Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking at the UN General Assembly where she highlighted that “Behind these numbers are real people suffering terrible abuse”.253 This commitment which was also signed by Bangladesh stated:

We, the Leaders (and their representatives) of a diverse group of Member States and Observer States to the United Nations, united in our commitment to end forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking, and the worst forms of child labour in our world by 2030;254

On 1 December 2017, the Secretary of State announced funding to help over 500,000 vulnerable men, women and children around the world who have either survived modern slavery or are at risk of becoming victims. The £40 million package includes:

150.We believe DFID should consider developing specific plans to tackle the risks of people trafficking into modern slavery in relation to the Rohingya. We hope a portion of the £40 million package recently announced by the UK Government to counter global modern slavery can be allocated to help prevent trafficking of the Rohingya.

244 ODI (DBB09)

245 UNHCR (DBB011)

246 Human Rights Watch, Thailand Needs to Stop Inhumane Navy ‘Push-Backs, September 2017

247 Department for International Development (DBB016) pg 7

249 Q7

250 Q72

15 January 2018