by Tracey Ferrier
Illegal migration is rife in Southeast Asia and it’s big business for people smugglers who ruthlessly exploit the region’s porous borders.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that more than 80 per cent of people who’ve slipped across borders in the region have done so with the aid of smugglers.
The trade can be as lucrative for the smugglers as it is dangerous for the smuggled, who roll the dice in a high-stakes game of roulette.
For the desperate who prevail in these shadowy journeys, the outcome is a better life in a more affluent country, or escape from war or persecution.
But for those who lose, the outcome can be death, torture, detention, or a life of forced labor or sexual slavery.
Central to this dark and deadly trade is the cancer of corruption.
“It’s literally the grease that allows the wheel to turn,” says Fiona David, an Australian criminologist and expert in migrant smuggling in Southeast Asia.
If the world needs proof of the evil nature of the smuggling trade and the role corruption plays in it, it need not look very far.
David points to what she calls death camps on the Thai-Malaysian border, where a human cargo of persecuted and stateless Rohingya people have been dumped by the smugglers they paid to get them out of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Their smugglers often turn captors, detaining people in hell-hole camps and starving them while trying to extort money from their families.
Some have been sold to human traffickers. Others have been tortured and killed.
In 2015, dozens of bodies were unearthed in border camps, including that of a young pregnant woman found tethered to a tree in a tidal area and left to drown.
More than 80 suspects – including local politicians and senior Thai army general Manas Kongpan – filed into a Bangkok court on human-trafficking charges in early 2016. But journalists were banned from reporting on the case.
The UNODC estimates Asia’s criminal migrant smuggling trade is worth US$2 billion (1.8 billion euro), with Southeast Asia accounting for a large but unspecified proportion.
Smuggling operations range from highly organized syndicates that are tapped into networks across the world, to very loosely related individuals relying on social media and word of mouth to drum up business.
David talks of a hierarchy of smuggling products, where those with the most money stand the best chance of a new life.
“The cheapest is by foot, smuggled through the jungle literally on foot. Those journeys tend to be very dangerous and very cheap,” says David, who’s also executive director of global research for the Walk Free Foundation, which works towards ending modern-day slavery.
“The next level up is people being smuggled by boat because that’s ultimately faster than a land journey.
“And then, at the top of the hierarchy, we’ve got the people who can afford to get smuggled by plane. This can often involve friends of friends, family of family, who might help a wealthy person pay a very large fee to get to another country. In those situations, we’re not seeing violence or abuse.”
In Southeast Asia, the primary factor driving people into the arms of smugglers is the lure of a better life in a more prosperous country.
David points to the relentless tide of migrants secretly slipping from Indonesia into relatively affluent, neighboring Malaysia.
A UNODC profile of smuggled migrants from and within Southeast Asia reflects this trend: typically, they are young men in the prime of their working lives.
But the region is also a hub for migrants fleeing conflict, with Malaysia and Indonesia longstanding transit centers for asylum seekers trying to reach affluent countries including Australia, Canada, and the United States.
“With conflict-related migration, that’s up in the order of 60 million people globally at the moment and within our own region, it’s probably in the order of three to four million,” David says.
“In terms of economic migration, of course, the numbers are far, far larger in Southeast Asia. For example, we have something like two to three million irregular migrants living in Malaysia at the moment. Most of those wouldn’t be refugees or asylum seekers; many of them would just be ordinary Indonesians looking for a better job.”
The UNODC says most smugglers in the region are nationals of the countries in which they ply their trade. Often they share the same backgrounds as the migrants they are smuggling, with previous customers sharing contact details with others back home who want to make their own illegal journeys across international borders.
The money that changes hands is often spent in average households, such as tuk-tuk drivers who turn smugglers on weekends to earn extra cash ferrying persecuted Rohingya people from Myanmar through unpatrolled jungle crossings into Thailand.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are highly organized smugglers offering what’s known as end-to-end services for wealthy migrants.
Cashed-up migrants pay in advance for an entire journey, from their homes, through transit countries, often with false travel documents, to the destination of their choice.
This typically happens by plane and with the help of corrupt airport officials who know exactly who is arriving and when. But even at the first-class end of smuggling trade, there are no guarantees.
A 2016 analysis of global migrant deaths and disappearances by the International Organization for Migration found 7,763 people died while trying to migrate, with 5,000 perishing in the Mediterranean region. Almost 90 per cent drowned on death ships, the vast majority organized by smugglers.
Southeast Asia, by comparison, had far fewer deaths last year and vastly less than in 2015 when 1,300 mostly Rohingya asylum seekers fled Myanmar and Bangladesh but drowned when smugglers abandoned the boats in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
During 2016, deaths on sea routes out of Myanmar and Bangladesh fell sharply, as neighboring countries ramped up surveillance, smuggling prosecutions escalated, and fearful people turned to land routes to flee.
Last year, the IOM was able to document only 153 deaths in Southeast Asia, 121 of them at sea between Indonesia and Malaysia.
But the IOM points out that scant data means migrant death reports are necessarily a fraction of the true picture.