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Human Trafficking Center

Bureaucratic Deadlines & Economic Deals No Excuse for Ignoring Longstanding Trafficking


Jul 2015


by Kara Napolitano, Staff


The political aspects of how the State Department ranks countries on their anti-human trafficking efforts have long been contentious.   In anticipation of the release of the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report  many have questioned whether the recent surge in media attention on the issue of human trafficking in Southeast Asia will affect the U.S. State Department ratings of countries that currently hold the lowest ranking of Tier 3, especially those implicated in the plight of the Rohingya.  Another Tier 3 ranking, the lowest possible,  could have serious negative diplomatic implications for the Trans-Pacific Partnership but is well deserved for the countries in question.

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority from western Myanmar, are one of  the most marginalized populations in the world.  Since 1978 they have suffered at the hands of an oppressive military regime perpetrating a state-sponsored genocide.  Myanmar is home to more than 135 ethnic minorities that were formally recognized by the Government of Myanmar in the 1982 Citizenship Act.  The Rohingya were not included in this recognition, leaving them officially stateless.  Since then they have been fleeing Myanmar en masse to escape persecution in effect becoming stateless refugees surrounded by countries who do not officially recognize either distinction.

Why the Rohingya are vulnerable to trafficking

There are a number of ways being a refugee increases vulnerability to trafficking which apply to the Rohingya.  These factors include lack of legal protection, victimization by smugglers, and lack of personal or economic security.  Their vulnerability often makes the Rohingya  victims of forced labor, sexual violence and sex trafficking, and abuse.

Lack of Legal Recognition and Protection

Due to the recent crackdown on human traffickers in Thailand, there are believed to be about 4,000 men, women and children stranded at sea with limited supplies.   The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is limited in its capacity to assist these asylum seekers for a number of reasons including relevant states not ratifying international treaties protecting refugees and stateless persons, outright violations of international customary laws and treaties, and discriminatory domestic laws limiting the UNHCR’s scope.  Malaysia and Thailand do not provide a path to citizenship and do not recognize the Rohingya as refugees.

Victimization by smugglers facilitating refugee movement

According to the the UNHCR, more than 25,000 Rohingya have fled disastrous conditions in Bangladesh and Myanmar since the beginning of 2015 alone, and nearly 1,000 have died on the journey.   Many asylum seekers are taken part of the way to their destination and then detained while traffickers extort money from family members or friends.  Others are deliberately diverted by Thai officials en route to Malaysia, into the hands of traffickers.

Lack of Personal or Economic Security

The livelihood strategies that once sustained the majority of the Rohingya inside Myanmar-mainly fishing, aquaculture and rice production-have become inaccessible due to restrictions on movement, limited access to land and water resources, and security risks.  Classified as irregular migrants in Thailand and Malaysia, they are not allowed the right to work, send their children to school or access healthcare.

Women and Lack of Personal or Economic Security

The absence of legal livelihood opportunities has an acutely negative impact on female refugees.  The Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children conducted research in Malaysia to determine the effects of statelessness on refugee women there.  Accessing the few economic opportunities available to refugee women, often restaurant work or domestic service, actually increased their risk of exploitation and abuse.  Even though the need to work is great, without legal protection they are extremely vulnerable to mistreatment by their employers, who act with impunity.  They are able to threaten arrest or deportation if victims speak out.  Some women choose not to work.  However, not working at all increases women’s dependency on community members, spouses and neighbors, which may also increase their risk of abuse.  “Over all, the Women’s Commission found that refugee women have no safe livelihood options.”


As the world responds to the forthcoming 2015 TIP Report and its tier rankings, keep in mind that this crisis is one that is affecting generations of Rohingya and not a new event, regardless of when the international media began reporting on it and TIP Report deadlines.  Whether Malaysia or Thailand is upgraded or remains at Tier 3 should not reflect recent media attention or the possible economic implications for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.   The persistent, longstanding, documented abuse of the Rohingya- including genocide– at the hands of states is significant enough that it needs to trump economic interests of states that could benefit from an upgraded ranking.

Photo Credit: Harris Nasution

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC.

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