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Human Traffickers Victimize Fleeing Muslims In Myanmar


This next story examines what causes people in Southeast Asia to start an exceptionally dangerous journey. It's a journey that begins in Myanmar or in neighboring countries. People are bound for some safer or more prosperous countries, such as Malaysia or Thailand. Just this morning, more than a thousand migrants landed on a beach resort in Malaysia. Over the weekend, another 1,500 were rescued from boats. Officials say they were abandoned by traffickers who'd been paid for passage. So what are the migrants trying for? Michael Sullivan has more.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Thailand and neighboring Malaysia have a labor problem, much like the U.S. - many locals unwilling to do work in construction or in the fields for low wages. And that's where the illegal migrants come in, some from Bangladesh but most from western Myanmar, formally known as Burma, members of the Muslim minority Rohingya community, which has long been discriminated against, persecuted even, by the Buddhist majority.


CHRIS LEWA: Arbitrary taxes, forced labor, construction of Buddhist villages in the middle of Muslim area, confiscation of land - that's part of the combination of persecution that the Rohingya are facing. And in that situation, I think many people just hope to flee and find a better life somewhere else.

SULLIVAN: That's Chris Lewa, an activist with Arakan Project which advocates for the Rohingya, in an interview I did with her six years ago. In an interview today, she said things have only gotten worse with violence against the Rohingya increasing, especially since 2012, which helps explain why they are now fleeing in increasing numbers.

LEWA: There has been two waves of violence displacing more than 140,000 people. Three years on, they are still in camps. More than 100,000 have already left. They have been trying to reach Thailand and Malaysia by boat.

SULLIVAN: The grisly find in southern Thailand over a week ago - dozens of shallow graves containing the remains of would-be migrants - are just the tip of the iceberg, Lewa says. Human trafficking, a big business in the region, especially southern Thailand, a transit point for would-be migrants and their captors, camps where the migrants are often kept in brutal conditions while the traffickers extort money from their families to pay for their passage. Sunai Phasuk is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Thailand.

SUNAI PHASUK: For those who fail to pay, they are beaten up. They are left to starve without food. If they're ill, they are left to die. And we believe that was the reason why there were mass graves found in the jungle. Those were the Rohingyas who die of starvation or illness.

SULLIVAN: It's a business human rights groups say has survived, thrived even, with the involvement of Thai officials at many levels. Thailand's new military government has conceded as much, reassigning dozens of police officers in the South in the past week and vowing to crack down the trade. But that's brought a whole new set of problems for the migrants already in the pipeline at sea, says Chris Lewa.

LEWA: We estimated actually about two, three weeks ago that there may be at least seven- to eight-thousand Rohingya who are trapped at sea. We understand that the smugglers still manage to provide food. But in the last week or so, after the mass graves were discovered, I think now it was very clear that disembarkation in Thailand was totally impossible and people became desperate at sea.

SULLIVAN: Thailand's General-turned-prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, has called for a regional summit later this month to address the problem. Thailand is keen on improving an image already tarnished by allegations of migrants being used as slave labor in the fishing industry, allegations that led the U.S. State Department to downgrade Thailand to tier-three status, the lowest, in last year's annual report on human trafficking. Thailand is hoping to do better in this year's report due shortly. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.