How many more mass graves need to be unearthed?

human trafficking
Rescue workers carry coffins containing the human remains of migrants exhumed at the weekend at an abandoned jungle Camp in the Thailand bordering district. AFP file photo

FOR the last few days, a series of news on modern-day slave trade and human trafficking in the 'Dark Triangle' of Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia have been making headlines in national and international media with the discovery of mass graves in the forests of Shangkhla, Satung and Sadao districts of Thailand. The investigative reports of Asia News Network suggest that over the last eight years at least 250,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingyas were smuggled to Malaysia through Thailand. As the reports show, the fortune seekers were trapped in the vicious cycle of abuses including torture, starvation, captivity, ransoms, forced labour, and humiliating deportation. In the worst cases, they were beaten or starved to death when the perpetrators were unsuccessful in collecting ransoms from family members back home. The victims had to pay from around Tk. 250,000 to 450,000 as costs of the voyage, ransoms, charge for 'receive house', intrusion bribe to authorities at destinations and costs of repatriation. 

The medieval atrocities that the victims were subjected to not only implicate a serious insult to humanity and violations of human rights, but also raise important questions as to how much we care about the safety of these people who risk their lives to make a better living through overseas employment, which in turn contributes on a large scale to the national economy.

Labour migration from Bangladesh started in 1970s when the Gulf and Southeast Asian countries experienced an economic boom.  The number of migrants has increased manifolds since then, hitting a total of 8.9 million in 2014. However, little progress has been made so far to ensure safety, security and rights of the migrants at home and abroad. The dirty, dangerous and demanding jobs abroad are still reserved for unskilled Bangladeshis. Despite all the atrocities driven by rampant poverty, unemployment and underemployment, youths still find migration abroad as an assuring alternative. For many aspiring migrants who cannot meet the legal requirements, irregular migration becomes a means to overcome the obstacles and gain access to foreign employment. In effect, the mass graves have once again proven that just like the chances of a better livelihood, the risks in migration are unevenly distributed where it is the poor, uneducated and unskilled people shouldering the greatest burden of risk. 

What concerns me next are the ways in which the incident unveiled the unholy nexus between migration and human trafficking. Irregular migration of Bangladeshis is just as common as regular migration. Although it is the least desirable form of migration, many migrants consider this better than being unemployed at home. Migrants believe that if they can somehow reach their destination and get a foothold, the risk would be worth it. Evidence from Japan shows that huge wage differentials enable irregular Bangladeshi migrants to accumulate sufficient savings to start their own business after only a few years in Japan. With the closure of the Japanese labour market following the introduction of visa requirements in the early 1990s, Malaysia and Singapore attracted the attention of prospective migrants, with Thailand becoming the staging post as a result of its liberal visa system and proximity to these countries. Over time, irregular migration to Malaysia has intensified due to the restrictive migration policies of the state, ever increasing migration cost, irregularities and corruption at both sending and receiving ends. 

As policies become more restrictive, so do the operations of the transnational trafficking gangs who lure people from almost all over the country to journeys using the prospect of jobs in Malaysia, small cash inducement and an option to return home. Media reports show how Teknaf and St. Martin's Island at the south-east most border of Bangladesh have become 'Malaysian airports' and safe havens for traffickers to carry out operations. The elements of  deception, torture, captivity and forced labour implies these are not mere cases of 'illegal border crossing' and should not be dealt with immigration laws of countries concerned. There is no doubt that these are incidents of 'human trafficking' from both legal and occupational point of view, which should be stopped at any cost. Since irregular migration and trafficking share a grey area, my concern is that these type of incidents may severely alter Bangladesh's image from a 'labour exporting'  to a 'slave trading' country resulting in huge control over our manpower export. 

This brings me to the third point relating to the severe costs that the incident has inflicted on us. The peril of the trafficked victims needs no further description. The families have not only lost a beloved member but also prospective fortunes as they had to spend Tk 250,000 to Tk 450,000 as ransoms or the 'cost of journey' and heed no return. The whole scenario questions the government's performance in ensuring the rights of already-vulnerable groups. The international response could be harsher implicating a cut in foreign aids, loans and businesses. If the situation persists, there is a likelihood that international pressure will mount on Bangladesh which was labeled earlier by the USA as a Tier 3 state as per the human trafficking index indicating its inability to punish and control the traffickers. 

Within the above context, my question is how many more mass graves need to be unearthed to change our laidback attitude in the matter? We have heard our state authorities say many times that little can be done as people are desperate and  the syndicate is beyond reach. Thailand has already taken the issue seriously as the EU and the USA have started threatening economic sanctions. It has sought multilateral cooperation to halt the activities of traffickers and it is high time that Bangladesh takes the issue on board. The government must carry out massive raid and anti-trafficking drives at Cox's Bazaar, Ukhia, Teknaf as well as St. Martin's Island by mobilising local administration, law enforcement and intelligence agencies to stop secret journeys. Local brokers and godfathers should be brought under speedy trial and exemplary prosecution using the Human Trafficking Deterrence and Suppression Act 2012. Along with punishing traffickers, massive public awareness campaigns have to be conducted through mass media and local representatives of the government and NGOs. Lastly, it is equally important to identify the root causes that drive people to undertake such perilous journeys and ensure safe labour migration which serves as a lifeline for this state. 

The write is an Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka.


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