THAILAND made headlines last week as photographs emerged of its navy towing boats filled with hundreds of Rohingya people from Burma out to sea, leaving them to wash ashore elsewhere or perish. Unfortunately, such callous treatment of asylum seekers is nothing new. In the late 1970s, the Malaysian navy towed boatloads of Vietnamese refugees out to sea, telling them to head to Indonesia.
Malaysia may have changed its tactics, but it continues to endanger Burmese refugees who reach its territory. Rather than towing undocumented Rohingyas out to sea, Malaysia dumps them at the border with Thailand, reportedly into the hands of human traffickers.
Last year, Human Rights Watch interviewed two dozen undocumented Burmese, including Rohingya, who described how Malaysian officials apprehended them during raids, kept them in detention centres, and then dumped them at the Thai border, often directly into the hands of waiting criminal gangs. Many of the Burmese I spoke with said that Malaysian immigration officials accompanying the deportees called the gangs en route to arrange where and when to deposit their human cargo.
Deportees with money can pay smugglers to return them to Malaysia undetected. But those without money usually fall into the hands of traffickers. One Burmese woman told me, "If we don't pay we will be killed, or sold, or forced to marry unknown men."
A Burmese man described how he was deported to the border with 50 other Burmese. Only 10 could pay their way out. Traffickers sold the rest: "The gang said they will send you to work on fishing boats or rubber plantations. Some who tried to escape were shot and killed." Local activists call it a "revolving door of abuse".
Local organisations have reported on these problems for years and called repeatedly for Malaysian authorities to investigate these claims and the allegations that officials are directly involved in trafficking rackets.
The Malaysian government denies outright all allegations of human trafficking. The home minister, Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, has dismissed the reports as "wild accusations", and so far refuses to mount an impartial and transparent investigation. But now the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee is examining these claims and the stonewalling may not work. Too many people have provided detailed testimony that is strikingly similar in nature to dismiss this evidence of collusion.
As for Thailand, at best its authorities are turning a blind eye to what is happening on the border, but in a number of cases it appears that its officials are similarly complicit in the trafficking of deported migrants.
Human Rights Watch has interviewed Burmese migrants in Thailand who confirm the trafficking allegations. They said that others working alongside them on fishing boats have been trafficked by gangs working on the Malaysian border. Other Burmese had been in Thai police lock-ups, but brokers had paid police to release them, then sold them to fishing-boat captains.
The collusion of the authorities on both sides of the border is a common theme in these allegations.
Last week, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva vowed that Thailand would uphold the law and increase efforts to address human trafficking with neighbouring countries. Both Malaysia and Thailand recently adopted new laws to counter human trafficking. It remains to be seen whether these laws will be enforced so that those prosecuted are not only members of criminal gangs but also government officials involved with them.
Beyond a criminal justice approach, it's time both countries recognised refugees and asylum-seekers within their borders, and did more to treat all migrants humanely. This means only deporting undocumented migrants safely, and respecting their basic rights. Before deportations take place, authorities should screen to identify victims of trafficking and allow the UN refugee agency to screen for refugees.
Victims of trafficking need protection and access to justice. Undocumented Burmese may be asylum seekers or simply economic migrants seeking a better life, but those fleeing persecution have a right to protection under international law. Refugees should be offered asylum or resettlement in third countries.
Thai and Malaysian leaders should also pressure Burma's generals to end the abuses from which the Rohingya and others are fleeing. A welcome first step is Thailand's offer to host a regional conference on the Rohingya issue. The Burmese government's denial of citizenship to the Rohingya, forced labour, arbitrary confiscation of property, and denial of freedom of movement are among the reasons why the Rohingya flee, and why they need protection.
Addressing human rights abuses at the source will curb the flow of asylum seekers. Dumping Burmese people at sea or on the border just puts them in yet another dangerous situation.
Elaine Pearson is the Deputy Director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.