JAKARTA, 8 May 2015 — The horrific discovery of dozens of bodies of trafficking victims in southern Thailand represents yet another disturbing outcome of a collective lack of leadership on the part of regional governments to address the pervasive problem of human trafficking and the unfolding tragedy for Rohingya Muslims, said ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) this week.
Since 1 May, authorities in Thailand have uncovered more than 30 bodies of trafficking victims in Songkhla Province along the border with Malaysia. Many of the victims were believed to be Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. Reports suggest they likely starved to death or died of disease while being held in detention camps by traffickers hoping to collect ransoms.
“The fact that ASEAN leaders continue to ignore these crises is reprehensible,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of parliament in Malaysia. “It is sickening that crimes like these can take place at all, and doubly so that our so-called leaders do not have the courage or humanity to act to prevent them.”
The collective of regional lawmakers also said that the discoveries provide further evidence that the plight of Rohingya represents a regional concern, which can no longer be deemed an “internal affair” of Myanmar alone.
APHR called on Thai authorities to take clear action to end human trafficking and hold accountable those responsible for crimes in these and other cases. It also demanded the Thai government allow the United Nations to conduct refugee status determination screenings of Rohingya and other asylum seekers.
“Successive Thai governments have known these camps existed, and yet did nothing,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, a member of APHR’s board and a former MP from Thailand. “The extent of official complicity in these crimes is alarming. The government must hold those responsible to account, and this includes state authorities. Simply shifting police officers suspected of involvement to ‘inactive posts’ does not constitute anything close to a genuine application of justice.”
“Thailand must cleanse herself from a preference for being soft on traffickers by allowing international bodies like the World Health Organization, the UN Human Rights Council, and the UN Refugee Agency, all of which have offices in Bangkok, to engage in refugee cases, especially those related to the Rohingya tragedy,” Kraisak added.
The problem, however, goes beyond Thailand, APHR argued. Other ASEAN member states must also take steps to combat trafficking rings, many of which move willfully across state borders. APHR also called for collective regional action on the issue, including the adoption of a binding ASEAN declaration on human trafficking.
In addition, MPs said that regional governments must work to ensure the rights and security of economic migrants and asylum seekers fleeing persecution or conflict.
“Often when crimes like these come to light, authorities only take superficial steps to crack down on the perpetrators,” Kraisak said. “In most cases, though, traffickers simply move deeper into the jungles, where the risks for their victims greatly increase. An effective response requires a sustained effort to safeguard the rights of victims.”
The discovery also highlights the need for regional leaders to urgently address the escalating crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where Rohingya have been the victims of systematic persecution by government authorities and religious extremists.
“The authorities and even the media in Myanmar are treating this tragic story as if it were ‘foreign news’ and somehow not the Myanmar government’s responsibility. This is shameless,” Kraisak said.
APHR called on regional leaders to take a strong stand against Myanmar government policies and actions targeting Rohingya, which are driving people into the hands of the traffickers.
“Without addressing its root causes, which stem from the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Rakhine State, the region cannot deal with the refugee crisis in a sustainable way,” Santiago said. “Revelations like these continue to demonstrate that the crisis is an ASEAN problem, and ASEAN must take steps to confront it.”