Friday, April 24, 2009

“[Burmese women] are sold at a brothel if they look good,”

Malay officials accused over human trafficking

“[Burmese women] are sold at a brothel if they look good,” recounted one refugee. “If they are not beautiful, they [the traffickers] might sell them at a restaurant or house-keeping job.”

By Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington, Financial Times

An influential US senator has accused Malaysian officials of complicity in the human trafficking of Burmese refugees who have been sold into prostitution and other kinds of forced labour in recent years.

Richard Lugar, the top Republican on the foreign relations committee, on Tuesday handed the Malaysian government a report on a year-long investigation into allegations that refugees who fled the Burmese junta for Malaysia had been handed over to traffickers on the Malaysia-Thailand border.

The report, which was obtained by the FT, highlights the plight of Burmese migrants who crossed Thailand into Malaysia in the hope of registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and then being resettled in a third country.

According to the investigation, Malaysian officials have transported migrants - including some who had registered with UNHCR - from detention centres to the Thai border for deportation. At the border, however, migrants are handed to traffickers unless they can pay a ransom.

“Migrants state that those unable to pay are turned over to human peddlers in Thailand, representing a variety of business interests ranging from fishing boats to brothels,” said the report.

The Senate investigators also received multiple reports of Burmese women being sexually abused by traffickers, including some in front of their husbands because, as one NGO employee cited in the report put it, “no one dares to intervene as they would be shot or stabbed to death in the jungle’’.

“[Burmese women] are sold at a brothel if they look good,” recounted one refugee. “If they are not beautiful, they [the traffickers] might sell them at a restaurant or house-keeping job.”

The committee launched the investigation in 2007 after hearing allegations about the trafficking of Burmese migrants “with the knowledge, if not participation” of Malaysian officials.

“The prospect that Burmese migrants, having fled the heavy hand of the Burmese junta, only to find themselves in harms’ way in Malaysia seemed beyond belief,” said the report.

While raising concerns about the role of “government officials” - which the report defines as immigration and police officials, and the semi-official People’s Volunteer Corps [Rela] - Mr Lugar welcomed the Malaysian police’s recent decision to investigate the allegations.

The Malaysian prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The report estimated that a few thousand Burmese have been brought to the border with Thailand in recent years, and in particular to the Sungai Golok in Thailand and Padang Besar in Malaysia. It said Burmese refugees now residing in the US had provided names and bank account details for people involved in the trafficking, which have now been forwarded to Malaysian law enforcement officials.

The 2008 State department human rights report also found that while Malaysia “generally” had a good human rights record, there were some problems, including “credible allegations” that immigration officials were involved in trafficking Burmese refugees.

It also highlighted abuses by Rela, including rape, beatings, and the destruction of UNCHR status documents.

Human Rights Watch also concluded in its 2009 World Report that “testimonies from migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers deported from Malaysia to the Thai border indicate collusion between Malaysian immigration officials and human smuggling gangs who charge steep fees to facilitate deportees’ return to Malaysia or back to Burma”.

Additional reporting by John Burton in Singapore

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