The reports and imagery that followed brought home the scale of the regional trafficking trade and its gruesome end results. But the findings were not altogether surprising: 18 months before, journalists from Reuters uncovered evidence that Thai immigration officials had been plucking refugees — mainly Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority who have fled persecution in Myanmar — from detention centers in Thailand and selling them to trafficking rackets, who would then transport them to camps in the country’s south and hold them there for weeks, even months, facing torture and disease. Those who survived — and many didn’t — would be released upon payment of a ransom from relatives, or perhaps smuggled deeper into Malaysia. Trafficking networks operating out of Thailand have been known to sell people into indentured labor on fishing vessels, or as farm workers, sometimes for as little as $155. At the time only a few camps were located, and the true scope of the cross-border trafficking infrastructure — its expansive network of smuggling routes and jungle holding sites, some of which had been in place for years — remained largely unknown to the public. In response, the US downgraded Thailand to the lowest ranking on its annual human trafficking index. Washington hoped this would encourage the Thai government to crack down on trafficking rackets, as well as weed out its own officials who facilitate the movement of people from detention into slavery. The grisly discovery in May showed the limitations of US pressure: despite government pledges over the past year to tackle the trade, which has been known in Washington for more than a decade, the mass graves were evidence that trafficking operations have continued to grow, and become more sophisticated in the process.
Having managed several weeks ago to make telephone contact with passengers aboard one traffickers’ boat carrying Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees off the coast of Thailand, staff from the Arakan Project, which monitors the movement of Rohingya, produced testimony from a 15-year-old boy who spoke of the existence of traffickers’ vessels that host desalination plants in the waters near Thailand, and feed fresh water to smaller refugee-laden boats anchored nearby. This allows trafficked people to remain at sea for months on end — to be sold, to wait on listing vessels until families can pay the ransom required to free them, or to obviate the need to be offloaded into increasingly vulnerable jungle camps. Promised action by the Thai government to tighten the net on the “onshore” trafficking industry — by shutting down the jungle camps, penalizing complicit immigration officials, or cutting the nexus between government bodies and shadowy rackets — could therefore see the business move further into international waters, where it becomes that much harder to monitor.
Human trafficking is a profit-motivated industry, its victims mere articles of trade. Agents who operate at sea pay little heed to the wellbeing of those they are ferrying, and pack as many onboard as needed to make the risky voyage from Myanmar to destination countries profitable. In this context, like the camps, those who fall ill are often dispatched with — the 15-year-old boy said that in his two months on the boat, 34 people were pitched overboard by the captain. The stateless Rohingya who end up in the sea are not lost from official records, for they were never on them. Instead the effects are felt more locally: families will lose a relative, and traffickers will lose a commodity.
October each year marks the beginning of the sailing season — the name given to the dry spell that runs through to the following April when the exodus on boats from Myanmar and Bangladesh picks up, and the jungle camps begin to repopulate. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 88,000 people, both Rohingya and Bangladeshi, have plied the refugee passage across the Bay of Bengal and into the Andaman Sea since 2014. The Rohingya, numbering around one million in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State, flee conditions that before long will result in their demise: up to 150,000 are restricted to camps along Myanmar’s western coast, and several thousand more penned inside ghettos in nearby towns whose access points are controlled by armed guards. They live alongside a Buddhist Rakhine population that, by and large, doesn’t want them there, and has made this explicit: departures on boats increased after February last year when stocks of aid destined for the camps — food, medicine, and shelter — were destroyed by Rakhine in a calculated bid to cut off the resources key to their survival. The government, eager to build on fledgling support from Western economies, has more recently pursued its own efforts to drive them out through less brazen institutional mechanisms: Myanmar’s parliament has just passed a bill that grants state governments the ability to restrict the birth rates of their local population, should they deem reproduction to be at a level that threatens local welfare. For anyone versed in the rhetoric of the Rakhine population and its representatives, the bill appears to be a response to perceptions that the Rohingya are rapacious breeders with their sights set on dominance of the state and its resources. Violence toward the group is thus multidimensional: physical, structural, and codified in law, and genocidal in its nature and ambitions.
Soon after the discovery of the mass grave in southern Thailand, and amid government warnings of a crackdown, the captains commandeering the vessels carrying Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshis from their own miseries aborted mission, leaving thousands of men, women, and children stranded with little food or water in the seas off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The governments of each country — fearful that accepting the boats would create a pull factor for many more to set sail from Myanmar and Bangladesh — refused them entry: Indonesia admitted to pushing back a wooden boat carrying “thousands” of refugees in the middle of May; Malaysia followed suit, turning back two boats carrying more than 800 people and suggesting they instead try Thailand. Thailand — whose own “help-on” policy for refugee boats has been known as far back as 2008, when it pushed vessels carrying Rohingya back out to sea with enough diesel to leave Thai waters, and not much else — refused entry to a boat the day after Malaysia did so, and pointed it toward Indonesia. As food and water ran low on one boat off Indonesia, fights broke out — survivors of the incident said that in the battle for the remaining scraps, some people were stabbed and thrown overboard.
The crisis that resulted from the pushbacks stems from two factors: first, that an entire ethnic group has been rendered stateless, and their lives in Myanmar made so unbearable that they embark on months-long sea voyages under the blistering sun with little sense of what awaits them; second, that Myanmar’s neighbors are increasingly resistant to the notion of accommodating refugees. As the extent of the crisis in May became clear and pressure mounted on regional governments, Malaysia and Indonesia, which have historically been principal destination countries for the Rohingya, shifted their positions and granted temporary shelter to those adrift, but said they will block all future arrivals. Thailand has launched search and rescue operations for the 2,500 still stranded at sea, but will not offer them sanctuary. Judging by popular responses to the prospect of Thailand opening its doors to Rohingya, the dehumanization in Myanmar has had a contagion effect that has influenced official policy elsewhere. Some Thais took to social media to express their fears of a “cycle of crime and pregnancy” should the Rohingya come ashore — epithets that bear striking resemblance to the kind of rhetoric the government and civilians in Myanmar use to debase the minority group. That rhetoric has helped drive a militant strain of exclusionary nationalism among sizable segments of the Myanmar population, of which the Rohingya are the most visible victim.
Past crises rooted in Myanmar’s treatment of its minority groups have garnered little substantial reaction from regional governments, and this doesn’t seem set to change. Among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc — which include the four countries key to this current crisis — noninterference in a neighboring state’s affairs is, paradoxically, a cornerstone of bloc relations: mere vocal condemnation of Myanmar’s domestic policies is about as far as any action is likely to go. ASEAN’s historically feeble commitment to protecting the rights of its member populations was further driven home when it awarded Myanmar the 2014 chairmanship, long after the government’s segregation of the Rohingya into camps and ghettos had been carried out, and as its military assaults on other minority groups elsewhere in the country continued apace.
The upshot of it all is, quite simply, that these people have nowhere to go: for the Bangladeshis, their choice to board these vessels and risk the 2,000-kilometer sea voyage to Thailand illuminates their acute levels of destitution. But for the Rohingya, a more critical problem is at play: every country, including Myanmar, considers them to be illegal. Come the start of the dry spell in October, this enduring push factor will ensure that the crisis of the past few weeks plays out once again. This is the unique burden that stateless persons carry: a sense of non-existence, of not being entitled to any protection or hope of sanctuary: a cycle that repeats itself year after year, as if to emphasize over and again that ultimately, they matter very little. These ghost ships, of people with no home and no viable destination, can drift at sea for months, and the world will only come to know of their cargo when its absence takes form — in anonymous pits in southern Thailand, or as objects of multilateral dispute, stripped of any agency of their own. The governments who forbade their entry knew the cost of deporting the Rohingya to Myanmar: “refoulement” — returning a victim of persecution to his persecutor — is prohibited under international law.
Yet if these countries stick to their word, then next October, when sailing season comes round again, boats will launch across the Bay of Bengal only to be turned back out to sea upon landing on Southeast Asian shorelines. A new term will then need to be coined for the practice of pitching boats back out into the vast expanse of water from which they emerged, leaving them to drift indefinitely — a situation befitting a people who have never had an anchor, on land or off.
Francis Wade is a journalist focusing on Myanmar and Southeast Asia. He is currently based in London.