BANGKOK POST: No refuge on the southern border

No refuge on the southern border

Reports of organised human trafficking and extortion by Malaysian immigration officials, while Thailand turns a blind eye, are too credible to ignore.

By: Erika Fry


Published: 26/04/2009 at 12:00 AM

It’s hard to know when a nightmare truly begins, and while caught in its grim unreality, when it will ever end.

Lian (not his real name) is a 25-year old ethnic Chin man who fled his home in Burma out of fear of the military in September, 2006. He had been a truck driver, but often encountered Burmese soldiers who demanded – regardless of his duty to deliver the day’s haul – that he drive them places. One day, he was taking some soldiers to a village when he ran out of petrol. The soldiers believed he had done so on purpose and they broke his windscreen and beat him, leaving a scar still plain to see above his left eye.

Lian’s story was made available to Spectrum by Amy Alexander, an advocacy officer with the Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO) who interviewed him. According to the case study, Lian was taken to an army camp and his ID was confiscated. When he was released, the soldiers’ goods had been stolen from his truck and they blamed him for the loss.

Lian fled and came to Thailand, where he couldn’t find a job and where an agent told him he should go to Malaysia to claim refugee status with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Thai refugee camps do not register ethnic Chin, and have not officially processed new refugees for several years.

He went to Malaysia and sought out the UNHCR office, but a security guard there turned him away for lack of documents. Despite visiting the premises every day for two weeks, he never figured out how to get access to a UNHCR officer.

He was arrested a year or so later in a 3am immigration raid, put barefoot on a lorry and sent to a detention centre where detainees were not given fresh clothes and told they could only drink the bath water.

One night a month later he was taken with a busload of 73 other refugees and migrants to the Thai-Malaysia border. Immigration officials took them to a jungle area where a handful of brokering agents who spoke Malay and Thai were waiting in cars.

The group was told these agents had already bought them from the immigration officials and they were packed under blankets, 15 to a car, and driven 15 minutes to another jungle area, this time in Thailand.

Here there was a big tent with more agents, patrolled by several guards with guns. They were told, “If you can get money sent to us, then we can get you where you need to go. If not, you’ll have problems.”

Lian could not immediately get the money (the agents call relatives or contacts of the refugees and migrants and arrange a transfer), and so he spent six days in the camp in which he was beaten, underfed and kept in the tent.

He eventually reached a friend in Kuala Lumpur who was able to transfer the necessary 2,000 RM (19,600 baht) to the agents’ account that night. With that, he was free to leave, and an agent led him and a group of 13 others back into Malaysia on foot. They were climbing over the border fence into the country when they were intercepted and drew fire from Malaysian border guards. They scattered in the jungle and regrouped the next morning. The agent had left them and the group was soon picked up by a vehicle that took them to a police station inside Malaysia.

They were put back in detention, this time in a facility that held 300 people per cell. Lian was shuffled to a few other detention centres before he was again deported to Thailand three months later. This time the immigration bus took 93 people to the border in the dark of night.

“When the immigration bus stopped, four agents came out from the jungle and met the bus. The authorities opened our handcuffs and told us to follow the agents,” said Lian.

The agents walked them through the jungle until they reached a large river, where a boat was waiting. They were ferried across the river to yet more agents, who separated them into groups of those that could pay, and those that couldn’t.

Lian called the same friend, who promised to pay the 1,900 RM and in the same way he had come to the camp, he was shuttled back by agents to Kuala Lumpur.

Lian now lives in fear in the jungle on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. He has a Chin refugee card, but as yet no documentation from the UNHCR, which has temporarily closed its registration for refugees, and no immediate hopes for resettlement.

THE REVOLVING DOOR As exhausting, costly and unfortunate as the story of Lian’s asylum-seeking journey is, his experience of being bounced around borders and cycled through prisons and detention centres is by no means atypical among the many refugees and migrants from Burma that seek better lives in Thailand and Malaysia.

And also apparently common, though not well publicised, are cases in which migrants and refugees in the hands of Malaysian immigration officials experience extortion and trafficking at the Thai-Malaysia border. In most cases the refugees and migrants buy their way back to Malaysia by arranging the payment of the agent’s 1,200 to 2,000 RM (11,800 to 19,600 baht) ransom fee. When they can’t find the money or the friend to make this payment, they are reportedly sold to Thai fishing boats, brothels, and factories.

While human rights and ethnic Burmese community-based organisations, as well as a handful of media outlets in Malaysia have documented these cases for years (they refer to the Thai-Malaysian border as “the revolving door”), the allegations have never prompted more than staunch denials by Malaysian authorities and complete disregard from their Thai counterparts. Some analysts say the issue has never received significant attention in Thailand because of the turbulent environment in the nation’s South.

Monitors of the situation are hopeful that this will soon change, thanks in part to the release of a report prepared for the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations – Trafficking and Extortion of Burmese Migrants in Malaysia and Southern Thailand – earlier this month.

The report, which is based on a year-long investigation and which involved a number of personal interviews similar to Lian’s case study, alleges that Malaysian officials have been complicit in the extortion and human trafficking of a few thousand Burmese refugees at the Thai-Malaysian border. Investigators also found many cases in which migrants had been sexually assaulted or had their rights abused during the arrest/detention/deportation cycle.

While the report does not directly implicate the involvement of Thai officials, it does suggest a sizeable, well-established network of human traffickers operates rather unabashedly, and in cooperation with Malaysian officials, along Thailand’s southern border. Activities documented in the report centre around the Thai border city of Sungai Golok and Malaysia’s Kelantan state, as well as Padang Besar in Malaysia’s Peris state.

Those familiar with the report say it focuses mainly on Malaysia, because the information that prompted the investigation came from Burmese populations and human rights organisations in Malaysia.

Phil Robertson, a researcher on migration in Southeast Asia who has studied the issue, said, “What this is pointing out is something that has evidently been going on for a long time.”

He adds, “I was told two years ago by UNHCR staff in Malaysia that there were persons of concern [refugees] that had files and they disappeared for three or four years. They’d come back and tell these stories. I’ve met fishermen in Mahachai that speak of jungle camps ringed in barbed wired and men with guns, and being sold to fishermen.

“This is not something new. It’s only new that the international community is finally turning attention to this longtime lawless border.”

He says it is now the obligation of the Malaysian and Thai governments to act on the report.

“Malaysian immigration officials and RELA [Ikatan Relawan Rakyat Malaysia, Malaysia’s 500,000-strong civilian immigration corps, which has the power to investigate and arrest all suspected illegal immigrants] are directly implicated in selling people. This is criminal behavior and it warrants being investigated and prosecuted.

“While the Thai side gets less focus in this report, it takes two to tango. At minimum, the Thai government must mount an impartial investigation into the holding of these vast numbers of people. To not do so would be complicit in trafficking.”

He adds that “both countries have good, clear anti-trafficking laws. The culture of impugnity must come to an end.”

Information collected by investigators, and which has been forwarded on to law enforcement agencies, paints an absurdly complete picture of the criminal network. Details provided to the committee during interviews, previously published in media and NGO documents, and includes names of persons to whom the ransom payments were allegedly made; payment locations in Malaysia and Thailand; bank account numbers to which extortion payments are deposited; locations along the Thailand-Malaysia border where migrants are reportedly take by Malaysian officials; and the identification of people allegedly involved in the trafficking of migrants and refugees.

The agents are believed to be Thai, Malay and Burmese of a variety of ethnicities. In some reports, refugees at the border were sorted according to ethnicity.

Victims include Burmese refugees and migrants of numerous ethnicities including Chin, Rohingya, Shan and Mon who come to Malaysia to seek work or UNHCR documentation for third-country resettlement. Most are arrested in large-scale, late night raids conducted by the RELA. The organisation has been described as fascist and in the past members reportedly received a bounty for each arrest they made. In many cases, refugees have had their UNHCR documentation discarded and personal property confiscated or lost completely.

LIVING IN FEAR Malaysia does not recognise refugees, but it does allow the UNHCR to operate in the country to process and resettle them. Accordingly, many refugees from Burma take the risk of travelling to Malaysia in the hopes of reaching the UNHCR before immigration officials reach them. As of January 2009, there were 27,000 “persons of concern” from Burma registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia; it is believed there are at least 30,000 more waiting to be processed.

“It still happens that people with documents, and within weeks of resettlement, will be rounded up and deported. What’s ironic is that Malaysia is hostile to refugees that are trying to get out of Malaysia,” said Ms Alexander of the CHRO, who in addition to Lian interviewed a number of Chin refugees that have experienced the arrest/detention/deportation cycle. She noted that it is also common for employers to hire migrants and then call in RELA for a raid a few days before their scheduled payment.

Once arrested by RELA, the migrants and refugees (children too) are generally detained in facilities with overcrowded and generally poor conditions. Deportation to a “jungle camp” at the Thai-Malaysia border usually follows several months later.

As for the policy logic behind the deportation of Burmese refugees to the Thai border, Mr Robertson said, “these structures and systems are only as sophisticated as they need to be. The fundamental issue was that someone wanted to get these people out, and somewhere along the way, people figured out how to make money off of it.”

Unsurprisingly, these activities have only exacerbated the economic hardship and considerable level of fear migrants and refugees face.

When migrants cannot pay their ransom fees, families are split apart and sold to different industries. Little is known about the fate of the children at the border.

Another woman Ms Alexander interviewed who had been deported with her young daughter was told by agents: “Do you want to die here or do you want to be sold to a Thai night club? If you want to stay here, you will be the only woman and there is no guaranteeing what can happen to you.”

Because of these ordeals, migrants and refugees in Malaysia live in fear – often hiding in the jungle or barely leaving their of homes – because of the country’s peculiar immigration policy.

To help cope with these problems, Ms Alexander says migrants and refugees living in Malaysia have formed highly organised communities and networks of support that can be mobilised and try to scrape together sufficient funds to free a community member who gets caught up at the border.

She is hopeful the US Senate committee’s report will provide an impetus for a sustainable solution to their problems.

“Right now, Malaysia is still issuing denials and insisting these are just the lies of international governments. But the accounts are credible – there are just so many. This is so systematic, it has happened so many times, to so many people.”

While Malaysian officials responded defensively to the US investigation and denied all allegations, there has recently been a turnover in Malaysia’s immigration ranks and a police investigation into the matter was reportedly launched on April 1.

Even so, the raids continue. Ms Alexander received word earlier this week that another 300 refugees and migrants had been arrested and detained earlier this week. Among the group are pregnant women, a number of children, and UNHCR documented asylum-seekers.

The Royal Thai Police did not respond to requests for information pertaining to this article in time for publication.

This is the first part in a series about human trafficking of Burmese refugees and migrants at the Thai-Malaysia border.

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