Human Trafficking in Rohingya Refugee Camps

In light of the ‘repatriation agreement’ signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the 620,000 recent Rohingya refugees who have been living in Cox’s Bazar for the past few months will be allowed to return to the Northern Rakhine state or ‘to a safe and secure place nearest to it’ of their own choice.

Considering most Rohingya villages were burnt to the ground, returning to their first ‘choice’ is highly unlikely, hence the forcefully displaced Rohingya will be living in temporary camps and shelters indeterminately. On Burmese territory. 

This is particularly worrisome bearing in mind the recent human trafficking warning signs regarding the current situation in the world’s largest refugee camp which have been raised both by the U.S. Department of State in its 2017 Trafficking in Persons report and by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Human trafficking networks are believed to have expanded and are now ‘rife’ thorough the refugee camps. Therefore,it is by no means a stretch of the imagination anticipating the occurrence of the same phenomenon in these temporary shelters.

In which ways are the Rohingya refugees trafficked?

The nationality of the people smugglers or the ‘recruiters’ in Cox’s Bazar is not confined to just one. Some of them are Bangladeshi, some are Burmese, some are from the destination countries where victims are trafficked into and some are even from the very Rohingya community. Some have come before the camps were set in Cox’s Bazar, some have come together with the very first wave of refugees and some are still penetrating the camp zone. Their modus operandi consists of various stages which ultimately lead to the exploitation of the Rohingya refugees. It starts with the organisation of fake passports for the women, it continues with the charging of extortionate sums of money for transportation and it ends with them being sent abroad to the Middle East, Thailand or Malaysia.But, of course, the element of deception comes forcefully into play in the form of false offers of paid jobs in industries such as small commerce, fishing, begging and domestic work, the latter being especially catered for young women. They are deceived since they are either not paid the amount promised, their labour is exploited to the maximum in terms of the work hours they are required to do which deprives them of sleep or they are not permitted to leave their work premises or allowed to contact any of their family members.

This deception leads to full-on abuse whereyoung women are physically or sexually harmed. This normally happens when adolescent girls are promised domestic work in Chittagong, or even Cox’s Bazar, but then are forced into prostitution, forced or early marriages instead, often in different locations than the ones previously agreed to by both parties.

What makes Rohingya refugees more prone to human trafficking?

The ‘push’ factors that make refugees more vulnerable to human traffickers in the Rohingya refugee camp of Cox’s Bazar are multifold. Firstly, Rohingya refugees do not have an immigration status in Bangladesh, the government labelling them as simply ‘undocumented Myanmar nationals’, which renders them unable to integrate into Bangladeshi society, thus becoming more reliant on carriers and agents (i.e. potential traffickers) for employment and transportation.  

Secondly and adjacent to the first argument, the scarce income generation opportunities within the camps, increase the likelihood that refugees will fall prey to human traffickers whoare seen as the sole source of extra revenue to aid their survival.

Thirdly, taking into consideration the large surface on which the biggest refugee camp on the planet is situated on, it comes as no surprise that the level of protection offered by the various UN bodies and international aid agencies cannot possibly cover everyone. Therefore, families of refugees reach to people smugglers in order to offer their daughters up for early marriage as a form of protection for the daughters themselves and, by extension, for their family.

Also, on a more general note, the ‘hidden nature of human trafficking’ makes it a lot more difficult to grasp the full extent of the crime in Cox’s Bazar, according to IOM counter-trafficking experts on the ground. A bordering remark can be made about the position on the priority listof the human trafficking issue. Considering that the very basic needs of the refugees, such as shelter and food, are hardly being met, trafficking is not something on the immediate agenda which can be marked as urgent.

What has been done so far to counteract human trafficking in Cox’s Bazar?

The international community has spoken through the words of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at a Security Council meeting who condemned human trafficking and framed it in the narrative of a war crime or a crime against humanity. Shortly after, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution further condemning human trafficking ‘in the strongest terms’. Consequently, together with the Political Declaration on the implementation of the Global Plan of Action against human trafficking which was adopted by the General Assembly this past September, the international community now boasts a powerful foundation for action based in international law. Taking the UNSC’s recognition of the gravity of human trafficking as a way of showing the importance of tackling this heinous transnational crime, the Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Yuri Fedotov, further urgedUN Member States to ratify and implement the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime alongside the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons in order to better ‘investigate, disrupt and dismantle networks engaging in trafficking in persons in all areas affected by armed conflict’.

However, at a local level, practitioners working on the Rohingya ‘refugee’ side of the problem have not crossed paths with professionals working on the ‘human trafficking’ quagmire.On the side of the human trafficking counteraction efforts, the Rapid Action Battalion, the top police unit in Bangladesh, was deployed to Cox’s Bazar in order to hinder the actions of traffickers. Regardless of these neutralisation efforts and the restrictions imposed on non-authorised personnel getting in the refugee camp, many of the human traffickers have managed to evade detection.On the side of refugee care, we can witness organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement or the World Health Organisation provide basic physical and psychological care which are very much informed about the health status of their patients. In addition, local charities get involved as well in the conducting of information campaigns and workshops aimed at educating the Rohingya refugees about the tactics used by human traffickers for the co-opting of more people.

What should be done from now on?

To target specifically the aforementioned reasons for susceptibility to human trafficking, various solutions can be put forward. Succinctly put, the international definition of the ‘refugee’ needs to be adopted by the Bangladeshi government and the Rohingya ‘stateless status’ needs to be further addressed. Short employment schemes and projects can counteract the dependence on alternative – potentially dangerous sources of income. More intelligence and information sharing between refugee and human trafficking specialists is needed so anti-trafficking measures can find room in the drafting of refugee protection regulations. Furthermore, as it is proverbially said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, thusmore preventative and proactive approaches directed at protecting Rohingya refugees should be taken into consideration before the number of human trafficking victims increases to a point of no return.

At the international level, more attention to human trafficking should be devoted in the regional meetings and talks of the ASEAN geopolitical players. Surprisingly, the latest ASEAN Summit did not touch upon whatsoever on the extent of human trafficking in Cox’s Bazar. Notwithstanding the bloc’s policy of non-interference, more visibility and, ultimately, access to justice for the Rohingya victims should be granted, with these policy items becoming part and parcel of the bloc’s main political agenda.   

Worryingly, trafficking rings and criminal gangs keep expanding with the increase in numbers of the refugees in Cox’s Bazar. If we continue to use merely painkillers or simply not address this issue at all in orderto proactively respond to the human trafficking taking place in Cox’s Bazar, we will only be brushing the outside surface and not addressing the root causes of the predicament both the Rohingya refugees and the international organisations on the ground are finding themselves in. Non-action or superficial tackling of such an urgent and massive transnational crime as human trafficking is simply giving the stamp of approval to the smugglers in Cox’s Bazar to continue exploiting desperate people who have already lost everything in the displacement process. 

Alina Toporas
Alina Toporas
Alina Toporas is a recent Master of Science graduate in Global Crime, Justice and Security at the University of Edinburgh Law School. She has previously worked for the European Commission Representation in Scotland, the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA), the Romanian Embassy in Croatia and Hagar International (the Vietnamese branch). She is currently serving as a Communications Assistant of the British Embassy in Romania. Her research interests are mainly targeted at the EU-UK cooperation in Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) post-Brexit. Alina is also the author of various pieces on transnational crimes (namely, human trafficking and illicit trade) with a geographical focus on South-East Asia.