While many may have thought the boat people crisis in Southeast Asia couldn’t get worse, a Guardian newspaper yearlong investigation, published on July 20, shows how a crisis within the Thai fishing sector has seen fishing boat owners shift from catching fish to carrying migrants, mostly from Myanmar and Bangladesh, to be sold as slaves for producing seafood, as well as for extorting money from their families.
The plight of the victims recently attracted international attention after several boats carrying “boat people” were found adrift off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, following a Thai crackdown on the trafficking of migrants – a trade that had been going on for years.
Now, according to the Guardian report, fishing boat captains – struggling to make a living due to a crackdown on overfishing, illegal fishing methods, and tightening Thai government controls over boats - have turned to assisting in the lucrative trafficking of migrants – mostly Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar and the impoverished from Bangladesh.
It is now apparent that Rohingya, seeking to flee Myanmar for a better life in Malaysia or further afield, are being sold as slaves to the troubled Thai fishing industry, which relies heavily on cheap migrant Myanmar and Cambodian labour. Those who cannot work on the boats are “thrown into the sea,” according to the report.
Particularly disturbing is the fact that the Thai government crackdown - on trafficking, the fishing industry, and the slave camps in the Thai-Malaysia border area - has led to traffickers using Thai fishing boats to help ferry enslaved migrants to bigger boats in which hundreds if not thousands are kept in extremely crowded and inhumane conditions. The fishing boats facilitate the passage of the larger boats and act as lookouts, according to the report. Little effort, it would appear, is being made to police this.
Anti-trafficking groups say Thai authorities have failed to effectively tackle the slavery problem. And this relatively new role of fishing boats helping the traffickers – as documented in a video report – shows human cargo, not fish, is the new lucrative “catch” for some boats.
Thailand’s fishing industry is in dire straits as regulators in North America and Europe impose sanctions on the sector over human trafficking fears, placing the billion-dollar seafood sector in jeopardy. According to the report, a sizeable percentage of the Thai seafood consumed on American and European tables is allegedly tainted by the sweat, toil and death of slaves.
To its credit, the Thai military junta has moved quickly to try to rein in an out-of-control industry, attempting to impose existing requirements for fishing boat registration, and offering words of assurance to North American and European governments that the fishing industry is being cleaned up. Bangkok is hoping their efforts will earn an upgrade in this year’s US State Department Trafficking in Persons report.
That said, the efforts made are far too little, far too late. Allegations of slavery and the bad treatment of migrants have been emerging over the last two decades. Shocking cases have been highlighted in the media over the last few weeks of men returning home to their families after years held as slaves.
This is a black mark Thailand could do without.
This Article first appeared in the July 23, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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