Saturday, February 27, 2010

In the Hands of Human Traffickers

Burmese detainees hold up their documents through a fence at the Lenggeng Immigration Center on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. (Photo: AP)

In the Hands of Human Traffickers
Thursday, February 25, 2010

A phone call from a terrified person in the middle of the night often awakens Min Thant (not his real name). He dares not ignore the call out of fear that someone may lose their life.

Because of his 13 years of experience as an overstayed “guest” in Malaysia, many Burmese migrants in Kuala Lumpur and throughout the country know to call Min Thant when they're in desperate straits.

He has heard many pleas from victims of human trafficking: “Min Thant, please rescue me,” “Min Thant, please save the life of my friend,” “Min Thant, please buy me from the hands of the brokers.”

If he hears that a Burmese migrant is being trafficked and is being held on the Malaysia-Thai border, he jumps into action, contacting friends to borrow money so he can buy the victim's freedom from the hands of a broker.

Sometimes ventures out in the middle of the night for an emergency rescue, even though he knows it is dangerous to go outside at night with a large sum of money.

Nevertheless, Min Thant said he doesn't worry about himself. Instead, he worries about the victims, who are pleading to be rescued from the human trafficking market. The victims are Burmese migrants who come to Malaysia because of economic hardship in their country. Others are political refugees seeking safety. While others still are war refugees whose lands were confiscated by the Burmese regime.

The illegal migrants seek greener pastures abroad in Thailand, Malaysia, India or Bangladesh, where they can easily cross the borders illegally.

In Malaysia, many migrants pass their daily life as undocumented workers without legal papers. When Malaysian police arrest illegal migrants, they are placed in detention centers. Then many will are trafficked by corrupt police or immigration officers into the hands of brokers on the Malaysia-Thai border.

According to Malaysia's Bernama News Agency, on July 20, 2009, “Nine people, including five Johor Immigration Department officers, were arrested in several locations for alleged involvement in an international human trafficking syndicate.”

Before many detainees are released into the hands of traffickers, Min Thant said many are given a cane whipping in the detention centers.

Nyunt Win, 33, shared his story:

“We could say nothing as the court had already decided we would be detained in the camp, including cane whipping as a punishment. They have big men to whip the detainees. The men get paid 100 ringgit ($28) for whipping each person.

While I was being taken for a medical check-up before being whipped, the men were beating the leather boards, testing the canes to see if they were good enough to beat us. The terrible noise scared me. Then, I was dragged to the place for the cane whipping as if I were about to be crucified. I thought about God and prayed to him, making up my mind to be patient being whipped.”

According to the “Malaysia Civil and Political Rights Report 2009 Overview” of Suaram, a human rights group in Malaysia, the Malaysian government announced that it had sentenced 47,914 migrants to be caned for immigration offenses since amendments to its Immigration Act came into force in 2002.

At least 34,923 migrants have so far been caned between 2002 and 2008, according to Prison Department records.

Tamme Lee, a refugee coordinator of Suaram, said, “Of those 34,923 migrants, 3.9 percent (1,362 migrants) were from Myanmar [Burma].”

Nyunt Win continued: “Some detainees who have been caned are withdrawn from the camp by the corrupt police and immigration officers and trafficked into the hands of Thai brokers. Burmese minority groups, including Burmese-Muslim brokers, work under the control of the Thai brokers, sharing profits. Human trafficking is a profession for all of them.”

Investigations have established that corrupt officers take many Burmese migrants—who lived in Malaysia without valid travel documents—to Malaysia's northern border with Thailand and pass them on to human traffickers in exchange for up to 600 Malaysian ringgits (US $170) each. The traffickers reportedly take the migrants into Thailand and tell them to pay 2,000 ringgit ($570) each for their freedom or they will be forced to work in the fishing industry.

A Burmese migrant who was trafficked said, “One of the trafficking victims from our group said that he’d like to meet the head broker.” The men who work for broker Hamid Naung (not his real name), reportedly one of the harshest brokers in the business, told their boss, who came and beat and kicked the man who asked to meet him, saying, “Are you the one who wants to meet me?”

According to one Burmese migrant who was trafficked to the Malaysian-Thai border, Hamid Naung is the leader in the human trafficking market together with his partner, Hassein, a Malaysian. Corrupt Malaysian police tell Hassein how many detainees will be deported to the Malaysia-Thai border. He then buys the deportees from the corrupt officers.

Htun Aung, 32, who was able to buy his freedom, said: “Twenty-seven people who did not have money were trafficked into Thai fishing boats for 35,000 Thai baht ($1,000) per victim. They were bought by the boatmen to use as slaves.”

Even while trying to help trafficking victims, Min Thant said he worries if he is doing the right thing: “I wonder if I am encouraging the brokers to abuse trafficking victims by transferring money into their bank accounts in exchange for the victims. If I said to the brokers that I don’t have enough money to buy the victims, brokers let the victims talk to me on the phone. While the victims are talking, the broker’s men beat and punch them. I can hear the noise of beating and punching. Then, I have to decide.”

Thai and Malaysian authorities and the international community are aware of human trafficking, but they are unable to eliminate the brokers and the corrupt officials. Brokers in human trafficking continue to reap sizable profits.

“I don’t want to deal with the brokers, but I have to,” Min Thant said. “The Burmese government doesn’t have sympathy for its people. The Malaysian government hasn't weeded out corruption. There is also discrimination against poor foreigners.”




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