The Rohingya Crisis: Human Trafficking in Context


Since the late 1970’s, the government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma) has enforced discriminatory policies on a multitude of minority ethnic groups, the most known of which are the Rohingya Muslims. These policies include denial of full citizenship to Rohingya Muslims, extortion and/or arbitrary taxation, seizure of land, forced eviction and demolition of homes, extreme limitations on movement within the Rakhine State and elsewhere via necessary movement permits, and legal/ financial restrictions on marriage. Rohingya Muslims were and still are forced to work on infrastructure and in military camps for little or no pay in Myanmar.

There are several instances of mass migration of the Rohingya to Bangladesh, then their repatriation. It is a cycle that leaves these desperate people vulnerable to several forms of human trafficking, primarily young Rohingya women and girls (however, there are several documented cases of labor traffickers targeting Rohingya men). Within this blog post, I will further explore the background/causation of the mass migration of the Rohingya into Bangladesh, and the trafficking that occurs within the camps and the region.


The Rohingya live in the northern Rakhine State situated in western Myanmar and bordering the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh to the northwest. According to Amnesty International, in 2004 around a third of the population of the Rakhine State was Muslim, most of them the Rohingya minority group. The other largest minority within the state are the Rakhine Buddhists, from which the state gains its name. While Myanmar recognizes 135 ‘national races’, according to the State Peace and Development Council, Rohingya is not one of them. They claim that the Rohingya are derived from a group of insurgents in the Rakhine State, and they illegally entered Myanmar in the 1820s during the First Anglo-Myanmar War. As the government of Myanmar refuses to grant Rohingya citizenship, these people are technically classified as stateless individuals. Amnesty International and the Council on Foreign Relations, until quite recently, Rohingyas were issued ‘white cards’ which provided them with identification and temporary residence in Myanmar.

History of Mass Migration in the Region

The first documented mass exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh was in 1978 when over 200,000 fled after the “Dragon King” operation by the Myanmar army. According to Amnesty International, the campaign targeted civilians and lead to mass killings, rape, and the widespread destruction of mosques, along with further persecution. In 1991-1992, there was another wave of Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh. This time they reported forced labor, extrajudicial executions, and rape as their reasons to flee. It was found that the Myanmar Army was forcing the Rohingya to work without pay on several different government projects, under conditions that were concerning for human rights experts. From 1992 to 1994, Bangladeshi authorities forcibly repatriated some 50,000 Rohingyas, after Bangladesh and Myanmar came to an understanding. In 1993, the United Nations High Council of Refugees (UNHCR) established its presence in the Rakhine state to attempt to implement a program to reintegrate the Rohingya into Myanmar. The UNHCR also established a voluntary repatriation program for the Rohingya in 1994.

In the beginning, Bangladesh was very soft on the refugee influx into the country, but then in the late 1990s, they adopted a policy of non-acceptance of the Rohingya refugees and an informal deportation policy. This became a problem in 2012 when violence between the Rohingya and the Rakhine displaced around 100,000 people. The government in Bangladesh did not allow Humanitarian agencies to operate within the refugee camps. The refugee camps and large presence of Rohingya in coastal Bangladesh has created a heavy burden on the economy and natural resources of the country. This along with the claims of Rohingya involvement in illicit activities and Myanmar’s refusal to accept the Rohingya as citizens has been the major causation of the shift in Bangladesh’s policies.

Again in 2015, there was a mass exodus of the Rohingya from both Myanmar and Bangladesh, this time, instead of via land, the refugees fled via boat. The international media dubbed them “the boat people”. This was the first well-documented instance of the Rohingya being trafficked. It was estimated by the UNHCR that around 25,000 Rohingya were smuggled by boat in 2015.

Rohingya Crisis 2017

While there have been several instances of mass migration from Myanmar to Bangladesh and beyond by the Rohingya, I want to focus on the most recent mass migration in 2017. According to both Human Rights Watch and the Council on Foreign Relations, the most recent influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh is upwards to 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh. This is in addition to the around 120,000 Rohingya who are still internally displaced by the violence in 2012 and 2015-2016.

In August of 2017, the Myanmar State media reported that the insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had attacked around 20 police outposts and a military base in the Rakhine State, killing 12 security officers. ARSA was declared a terrorist organization by the government and a brutal campaign which some, including Human Rights Watch, are calling ethnic cleansing. The military has systematically destroyed hundreds of Rohingya villages which have forced the people to flee. According to Doctors Without Borders, at least 6,700 Rohingya were killed in the first month of attacks, between August 25th and September 24th. Some eyewitnesses have reported open fire on fleeing civilians and landmines on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh, implemented by the Myanmar security forces. While officials in Myanmar have repeatedly denied that the security forces committed these abuses during their so-called “clearance operations,” this is contradicted by the vast amount of evidence otherwise.

Why do we need to know all this? Without background information about the treatment of the Rohingya and all the political and turmoil surrounding them, we are unable to understand how this group of people could be such an easy target for traffickers. These people have been ripped from all the know. Placed in these camps, living in squalor, the chaos surrounding their abrupt migration has created a thick blanket under which traffickers can operate unnoticed, for the time being.


Trafficking in Context

According to the Department of State TIP report, Myanmar (which they still call Burma) is a Tier 2 Watch List country. This means that while the government is making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, they do not meet it. The same goes for Bangladesh.

As reported over the past five years, Bangladesh is primarily a source and, to a lesser extent, a transit and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking… Migrant workers assume debt to pay high recruitment fees, imposed legally by recruitment agencies belonging to BAIRA and illegally by unlicensed sub-agents; this places migrant workers at risk of debt bondage… Bangladesh is host to an estimated 32,000 registered Rohingya refugees and up to 500,000 undocumented Rohingya, whose stateless status and inability to receive aid and work legally increases their vulnerability to human trafficking… Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who travel by boat to Southeast Asian countries are subject to exploitation when they are unable to pay ransoms and are instead sold into forced labor.

According to the UN, in situations like the current refugee crisis trafficking is invisible at first. There are more desperate needs to be addressed, like sustenance and shelter. But places like these camps are saturated hunting grounds for traffickers. Reuters states that six out of ten new arrivals at the camps are children. These female children can be and are recruited to work as maids in the cites. Children are easily separated from their parents in the commotion of the crowded camps. Both the UN and Aljazeera state, before the recent influx of refugees there were already trafficking networks in place in the Rohingya camps, but the recent surge has only exacerbated the trafficking situation.

According to interviews and focus groups conducted in the camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, there are traffickers using phony offers of paid work in fishing, commerce, begging, and domestic work. Most of the traffickers in the camps are Bangladeshi, but there are some Rohingya. Without any other sources of income made available to the refugees, they choose to take whatever opportunities arise, even if they are dangerous or also involve their children. These people find that once they’ve started their new jobs, they’re typically not paid as promised, they are unable to leave the premises of where they work, they’re not allowed to contact their families, and in the case of women and girls, they are more often than not, physically and sexually abused. Men will arrive from outside of camp and pay families around $60 for their daughters, who are promised domestic work. These girls are often never seen again.

“The men ask me for girls around 12-14 years old. They tell me they have difficulty with domestic work at their homes. They say they need someone to cook for them.” -Trafficker

How could a family do that to their child? It becomes apparent that these families have several motives for parting with their daughters. They either believe that their daughter will have a better life than in the camp or there are simply too many mouths to feed, and they can make some money will further lessening their financial burden. As callous as that may sound, it is a reality for the people living in these refugee camps. Forced and very early marriages are another way these families to both attempt to protect their daughters and provide them with hopes of economic advancement.

These instances of trafficking are not just local to the areas near the Rohingya camps, they are also a matter of international significance. Myanmar is a source country for forced labor and trafficking, according to the TIP report.

Burmese men, women, and children who migrate for work abroad—particularly to Thailand and China, as well as other countries in Asia, the Middle East, and the United States—are subjected to forced labor or sex trafficking. Men are subjected to forced labor in fishing, manufacturing, forestry, agriculture, and construction abroad, while women and girls are primarily subjected to sex trafficking, domestic servitude, or forced labor in garment manufacturing. NGOs continued to report instances of Burmese males transiting Thailand en route to Indonesia and Malaysia, where they are subjected to forced labor, primarily in fishing and other labor intensive industries. Some Burmese men in the Thai fishing industry are subjected to debt bondage, passport confiscation, threats of physical or financial harm, or fraudulent recruitment; some are also subjected to physical abuse and forced to remain aboard vessels in international waters for years.

Human Rights Watch has an article examining the forced labor in the fishing industry in Thailand. NOAA reported in January that the second largest importer of shrimp to the US was Thailand, the same place where it is known that these Burmese people are being trafficked. Not only is this crisis supporting forced labor and human trafficking, there is a possibility that if an American eats shrimp, they have eaten shrimp harvested by forced labor and trafficking.

What Can You Do?

There are several organizations who are on the ground, helping the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and Bangladesh. BRAC is the number one non-governmental agency helping the Rohingya right now. They focus on family health, water, sanitation, and hygiene. In the camps near Cox’s Bazar, these are some of the most pressing issues for the people living there. Doctors Without Borders has over 2,000 staff members and doctors helping with the medical needs of the Rohingya, if you are a medical professional, consider donating some of your time to this organization if you have the luxury. Unicef is also another great organization who is on the ground helping provide better shelter, more food, and clean water. Be aware of where your food is coming from; as you can see from the final example of trafficking, it can be the smallest thing. Finally, simply be an advocate by bringing awareness to the situation. Pressure your senators to demand change in that area of the world. With pressure from major world powers, there is a possibility that the governments in Myanmar and Bangladesh will take action to resolve the Rohingya Crisis and take steps to protect these vulnerable people from human trafficking.

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