Tens of thousands of persecuted Myanmar Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshi economic migrants have fled across the Andaman Sea in recent years, usually to Malaysia, as part of a lucrative trade controlled by smuggling gangs.
Human traffickers will resume their brutal trade across southeast Asia despite a regional crackdown, Amnesty International has warned, as it detailed the “hellish” abuses migrants have suffered at the hands of gangmasters.
Crossings tend to halt over the dangerous summer monsoon season and restart in October, while the people smuggling trade was thrown into disarray earlier this year by a crackdown on gangs in Thailand.
But Amnesty says that crackdown and promises by regional governments to address the crisis have done little to dismantle criminal networks or persuade people against making the crossings.
“There’s another disaster looming on the Andaman Sea unless governments act urgently,” Anna Shea, refugee researcher at Amnesty International, told AFP.
“Thousands of people will take to boats over the coming months, but so far regional protection mechanisms and search and rescue operations fall far short of what is necessary,” she added.
Rights groups have long accused south-east Asian nations of turning a blind eye to regional people trafficking and smuggling – and even alleged official complicity in the trade.
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Its sheer extent was laid bare in May when people-smugglers abandoned thousands of migrants at sea or in jungle camps after a belated Thai clampdown, a crisis that eventually forced a southeast Asia-wide response.
Survivors described horrors on boats and in camps on both sides of the Thai-Malaysia border where murder, rape and beatings were commonplace.
Amnesty’s report, based on interviews with dozens of survivors, described the treatment of migrants by traffickers as “hellish” and warned that hundreds – possibly thousands – may have perished because of the “disastrous consequences” of Thailand’s crackdown.
“The shocking truth is that those we spoke to are the ‘lucky’ ones who made it to shore – countless others perished at sea or were trafficked into forced labour situations,” Shea said.
“Governments must do more to prevent this human tragedy from recurring.”
Rohingya have long been fleeing Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, where they are persecuted by the Buddhist majority.
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Communal violence is prevalent and many of the minority live in bleak camps with restrictions over employment and travel.
Myanmar’s government has insisted that the group are not being persecuted. But Amnesty said their Rohingya interviewees were fleeing a “harrowing picture of mob attacks, deaths and disappearances” in Rakhine.
The group added that most Rohingya were “likely refugees” and should be treated as such by transit and destination countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.