‘Stateless’, ’Infiltrators’, ’Trafficked victims’, ’Bangladeshis’: Who are the Rohingyas?

Published: January 7, 2016 - 16:53

The problem with authorities in countries that the Rohingyas seek asylum in is that they consider them  economic migrants and a threat to security 

Sucharita Sengupta Kolkata

Till very recently in India, the Rohingyas were eyed with suspicion, often linked to terror activities like the Khagragarh bomb blast in Burdwan, West Bengal, in 2014. However, post the shocking media revelation of the smuggling-trafficking rackets in Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, facilitating the sea journey of Rohingyas to Southeast Asian countries, humanitarian responses worldwide have changed this imagery slightly. Being a Muslim minority ethnic group hailing from the Arakan province of Myanmar, the Rohingyas have been in constant mobility, lacking a fixed space or a state to negotiate with. As per a law in Myanmar, they have been denied citizenship and since then have been widely referred to as the world’s largest persecuted stateless community and are at present “Asia’s new boat people’. They are also commonly referred to as “bangalee” or natives of Bangladesh. Their language being similar to the Chittagongian dialect makes them even more identifiable with Bangladeshis. Their identity, however, remains a puzzle and changes with time and context.

Following massive persecution in Myanmar, the Rohingyas have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh from the 1970s. Since then, they have been living under protracted refugeehood in mostly the Cox’s Bazaar area of Bangladesh in two camps (these are confined areas and residents of camps are not supposed to interact with anyone outside the camp area), supported by the Government of Bangladesh and UNHCR along with a number of other organisations like the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and Programme for Helpless and Lagged Societies (PHALS) – an NGO based in Cox’s Bazaar. Around 5 lakh are living in precarious conditions outside the formal camps, in makeshift settlements, colloquially termed as leda. As a way out, therefore, the Rohingyas have been migrating or being trafficked to neighbouring countries like India through land borders and Southeast Asia through sea borders.

The phenomenon of trafficking Rohingyas from both Myanmar and Bangladesh to the southeast via the sea has been going on for a decade now, quietly, without any specific policy of the recipient country. Incidents of boats capsizing mid-sea made news way back in 2008 when 22 persons were saved by the Sri Lankan Navy, most of whom were Rohingyas, from a boat that had drifted into the Indian Ocean with a broken engine. The numbers in sea migration swelled from 2006, as Malaysia started registering the Rohingyas for residence or work permits. Although the process was soon suspended due to allegations of fraud, rumours of job opportunities spread in both Arakan of Myanmar and Bangladesh, resulting in a sharp rise of middlemen or traffickers who could facilitate the journeys. For sea passage to the shores of Southern Thailand, around US$300 was charged and for the final destination in Malaysia US$700-1,000 was charged. In the initial years, when this started in 2006, many could manage to reach their destination and find jobs. However, as more and more migrants started to appear on the coasts of these countries, authorities tried to check the inflow but instead of reduction, the figure swelled. While traffickers continued to lure people to make these journeys for money, in reality very few could make it to the destination and find work. Many were killed, or simply died from hunger, resulting in mass graves, some of which were discovered in 2015, that rocked the world’s conscience. Those who were unable to pay the fees were sold to plantation owners or fishing boats as bonded labour. There are two ways of illegally trafficking the Bangladeshis and Rohingyas to the southeast. Either they are kidnapped, or lured in the name of tourism in Malaysia and then imprisoned in the Thai border detention camps. Tahera Bibi (17), who is registered and lives in the Kutupalong camp in Ukhia of Bangladesh, has studied in the camp till Class 7, as that is officially allowed by the government of Bangladesh. After completing her formal studies, she got a marriage proposal in Malaysia through a friend. With dreams of a better life and hope of freedom, Tahera left for Malaysia. The agent who had helped Tahera was also from Teknaf and he is also a Rohingya. The money for her travel was arranged by her would-be husband, who was working as a labourer in Malaysia. The total amount paid was 1,50,000 BDT. In her own words, “we were first taken to a small boat which had around 80 persons. From there, we were taken to a ship where the number of persons rose to 160. The journey from the small boat to the ship took around 14 hours. The ship first took us to the Thailand border, which took around 12 days, where we were kept in a cave for five days. From there we were taken to Malaysia, again first in a small boat and then in a car. We were taken to the Thai-Malaysia border, Badamosha, where we were caught by the police and taken into custody. I spent four months in the prisons of Malaysia.” She managed to escape somehow, details of which she was reluctant to reveal.

The problem with authorities in these countries is that instead of viewing the Rohingyas as asylum seekers, they are considered economic migrants and as threats to security. In India too, indiscriminately, they have been incarcerated in various prisons all over the country for illegal infiltration under 14A[b] of the Foreigners’ Act.

Migration and human trafficking are thus like conjoined twins in the context of South Asia. One cannot be understood without the other. Migrants are being trafficked for work, bonded labour, marriage and sex. Although the established mandate has been to punish the trafficker and view the trafficked as a victim, for vulnerable communities uprooted due to war, ethnic violence, political unrest, developmental paradigms, religion, disasters like earthquakes and floods or simply for being stateless and poor, the line between coercion and volition is very thin. A migrant becomes illegal when he or she tries to enter the destination without necessary permits like a visa and passport. Normally migrants crossing an international border without valid documents take the help of middlemen or traffickers, so in a way most “illegal immigrants” are trafficked. Here too the line between a victim and an illegal migrant gets blurred. While a victim-centric approach might help in mitigating the problem to some extent, larger socio-economic and political causes as to why people migrate in the first place, especially in risky flotillas amidst raging high seas, escape the attention of policymakers. India’s Northeast and West Bengal are the major entry points for Rohingyas in India. Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, these porous borders have witnessed an ever-rising number of both legal and illegal migrants. Both the State responses have always resulted in increasing securitisation; however, that has neither been able to address the root causes of migration nor reduce trafficking.

In West Bengal, they enter easily through the borders as ‘Bangladeshis’ and indiscriminately are incarcerated, even if they possess refugee cards issued by the UNHCR. Some of the prisons, like the Behrampore Central Correctional Home in Murshidabad district, Dumdum Central Correctional Home in North 24-Parganas and Balurghat District Correctional Home in South Dinajpur of West Bengal have large numbers of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas. In December 2014, Balurghat Correctional Home had eight undertrial Rohingyas which rose to 30 in February 2015, Dumdum had 54 Rohingya inmates and Behrampore had 27. These are figures of only two months in three correctional homes out of a total of 58 correctional homes in West Bengal. Nurul Yusuf, Shayed Kabir, Samsul Alam and Fatema Biwi, lodged in Behrampore Central Correctional Home in 2014, filed a petition against their illegal detention and applied for adequate access to UNHCR, Delhi. They also demanded adequate compensation for their detention. However, their plea was rejected as the judges observed that the detainees were unwilling to be repatriated to Myanmar and neither do they have the legal right to roam around in India without valid travel documents. Since UNHCR was not under the jurisdiction of the court, it could not issue any direction on them. The writ application was thus dismissed. This brings out the travesty of justice that the Rohingyas are subjected to. This haplessness is adequately exploited by traffickers. 

There is also sharp gender discrimination when it comes to trafficking across the West Bengal-Bangladesh border. Traditionally, the term ‘trafficking’ is associated with sex work. Women mostly tell the tale of being trafficked in the name of marriage or domestic work and sold to brothels, making their victimhood acceptable, unlike men who are more easily denoted “illegal” and law-breakers. Although the National Task Force on Human Trafficking in India lays down that once a child/woman is rescued by the police or BSF, a detailed investigation shall follow and if the foreign victims are found without a passport or a visa, she will not be prosecuted under the Foreigners’ Act, this has hardly been followed in the case of the Rohingyas or even Bangladeshi women incarcerated in various prisons of West Bengal. An office memorandum of the Government of India, number 14051/14/2011-F.VI, also clearly states that if a woman or child is found to have come to India without her free will, the state government might not file any chargesheet against her and even if a chargesheet is filed it can be withdrawn. Trafficking is prohibited under the Constitution of India under Article 23(1). There also exist specific laws relating to trafficking of women and children, for instance, the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956 and Prohibition of Child Marriage Act (PCMA), 2006. Specific sections in the IPC, for instance, Sections 372 and 373, also exist in regard to buying and selling of girls. However, ignorance and a lackadaisical attitude of the law enforcement agencies result in long and undue detention.

According to reports collected by researchers of Calcutta Research Group from the Border Security Force in December 2014, West Bengal is a major transit zone for trafficked victims, especially women. Thus, it also plays a big role as the source within India and beyond, and as a desired destination for traffickers. Socio-cultural similarity between India and Bangladesh also makes it a target destination for traffickers. West Bengal is also a major source for women trafficked for prostitution within the country in brothels of Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and also internationally to Nepal, Karachi, Dubai and the Middle East. The most trafficking-prone districts are the border districts low on economic and human development index, for instance, North and South Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Malda, Coochbehar, Murshidabad, and North and South 24-Parganas. Most Bangladeshi and Rohingya women we interacted with in camps of Bangladesh and correctional homes in West Bengal revealed they were trafficked by known persons and forced into sex work or bar dancing in India.

Mostly women from bordering districts or Dhaka, Barisal, and Faridpore of Bangladesh are found in the brothels of Kolkata, Howrah, Asansol and Siliguri. Some of the commonly used trafficking routes from Bangladesh to India are (a) Dhaka-Barisal-Jessore-Satkhira by launch and then crossing the border; (b) Barisal-Jessore-Benapole by bus; (c) Gabtali-Dhaka-Jessore-Satkhira by bus through Maricha; (d) Dhaka and adjoining districts to Dinajpur and across the hilly border into India. Jahida Begum (28), whom I met in the unregistered settlement of Bangladesh, narrated the story of her brother trafficked to India. The family crossed over to Bangladesh from Myanmar through the border in Ramu by paying 6000 Burmese kyat. They initially settled in Ramu and then moved to Teknaf. Jahida’s brother is aged 25 and has been sold twice for forced labour – first from Teknaf to agents in India and then to another agency in India. He was lured with job promises from Tenaf and can’t return even if he wants to till he pays 20,000 INR to the agency which sold him in Hyderabad. Minara’s maternal uncle is also in Hyderabad, working as a daily wage labourer in a brick kiln. All of them – Abdul Mafatlal, Tahara Begum, Nahmada, Halima Khatun, Mohd Alam, Hafis Mohammad, Sanoara Begum and others we interacted with – admitted they were secure in Bangladesh, unlike Myanmar. But security has not been able to provide them adequate resources to fend for themselves or their families. Especially, the unregistered Rohingyas are living in abject poverty and malnutrition, propelling them to migrate. The first step towards a solution has to begin by rendering citizenship status to the Rohingyas in Myanmar and providing them a safe place to live in. While dialogue and meetings have ensued between states on combatting trafficking, the problem will not be solved only with arrests of traffickers, unless the root causes are addressed. Will arrests of traffickers stop illegal migration? Will that improve the state of the stateless? Questions remain. The only ray of hope is the new elected government in Myanmar and the world is now looking to Aung San Suu Kyi for answers.   

The problem with authorities in countries that the Rohingyas seek asylum in is that they consider them  economic migrants and a threat to security
Sucharita Sengupta Kolkata

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