The South Asia Channel

Acting East, Trafficking West

Greater connectivity could result in more human trafficking from Myanmar into India. Are the two countries ready to face the challenge?

SITTWE, BURMA - MAY 25:  Anis, 18 years, was held captured by human traffickers at sea for 32 days, May 25, 2015 in Sittwe, Burma. Since 2012, the minority group of the Rohingya people are forced to live in IDP camps, in Rakhaing State in western Burma. They have been denied citizenship in their homeland Burma and are accused of being illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Thousands of Rohingays try to escape the misery in the IDP camps across the Andaman Sea on small fishing boats hoping to reach Malaysia. Many of those who embark on the perilous journey by sea fall into the hands of human traffickers who charge high prices in return for their freedom.  (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)
SITTWE, BURMA - MAY 25: Anis, 18 years, was held captured by human traffickers at sea for 32 days, May 25, 2015 in Sittwe, Burma. Since 2012, the minority group of the Rohingya people are forced to live in IDP camps, in Rakhaing State in western Burma. They have been denied citizenship in their homeland Burma and are accused of being illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Thousands of Rohingays try to escape the misery in the IDP camps across the Andaman Sea on small fishing boats hoping to reach Malaysia. Many of those who embark on the perilous journey by sea fall into the hands of human traffickers who charge high prices in return for their freedom. (Photo by Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images)

India’s “Look East” policy has long prioritized boosting physical connectivity with East Asia and Southeast Asia via Bangladesh and Myanmar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East” policy platform has raised hopes that he will deliver on this ambition.

Follow-through by Modi here would be welcome news for India-Myanmar trade. But professionals working against trafficking in persons (TIP) between India and Myanmar paint a more complicated picture of the effects of connectivity. Physical connectivity could prove a fillip to traffickers unless there is a major upgrade in the region’s anti-trafficking infrastructure. What’s more, progress will be hampered for some time yet by the uncertain status of the Rohingyas, whose exclusion from citizenship in Myanmar seriously complicates their inclusion under bilateral anti-trafficking protocols.

The State of Cross-Border Trafficking

India and Myanmar’s individual human trafficking challenges are welldocumented, but trafficking between the two countries has received little attention from either NGOs or government bodies. Other borders have been seen as more urgent: for Myanmar, the borders with China and Thailand, and for India, those with Nepal and Bangladesh. For instance, as of April 2014, Myanmar had six border liaison offices (BLOs) on the Chinese and Thai borders cooperating on various law enforcement matters, including cross-border trafficking. On the India border, however, though the two countries have opened three such border liaison offices, anti-trafficking professionals on both sides of the border indicated to me that no BLOs are monitoring cross-border human trafficking as of yet. (Attempts to reach anti-trafficking authorities in the Indian and Myanmar home ministries for this article were unsuccessful.)

And yet cross-border trafficking between India and Myanmar deserves serious attention, according to Hasina Kharbhih, founder and chair of the board of the IMPULSE NGO Network, which has been monitoring human trafficking flows in the region for the past several years. Kharbhih is currently compiling her own estimates on trafficking flows between the two countries. (Neither government has publicly available statistics on the matter.) Her investigations suggest that cross-border trafficking mostly involves people being trafficked from Myanmar into India, for a variety of different ends: from Kachin children sent back and forth across the border as drug mules, to Chin women in the Mizo Hills forced into prostitution rings. Kharbhih says that stronger cross-border connectivity “will lift trafficking, unless we take the right border security measures.”

Several anti-trafficking professionals working on the Indian side of the border shared Kharbhih’s assessment of the challenges of connectivity. Officials in the state government of Manipur, on the border with Myanmar, described to me heavy reliance upon trafficking for recruitment of women among the 1,000 sex workers in the border town of Moreh. They estimated that a quarter of the town’s sex workers come from Myanmar and expressed concerns that expanded trade will increase trafficking demand. Meanwhile, though most cross-border trafficking victims in the region are Burmese, Keisham Pradip Kumar, convener of the Manipur Alliance for Child Rights, suggested that elevated connectivity may also increase the numbers of Indian victims. Better cross-border connectivity will be “a big challenge for [Manipur] if we are not prepared enough,” he said.

Bilateral Responses: The Rohingya Dilemma

In May 2014, India and Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on sharing information and intelligence on a variety of border security issues—including “drug, human, and wildlife trafficking.” The inclusion of human trafficking represents a first for the two governments; previous MoUs on cross-border law enforcement cooperation had not been applied to human trafficking, says Police Colonel (Retd.) Rallyan C. Mone, director of the Myanmar Police Force Department of Transnational Crime from 2003-2012. Kharbhih is optimistic about the catalyzing effects of this agreement and says that border liaison activity on human trafficking and a protocol for survivor repatriation “should happen within the year.”

Whatever changes come about in this sphere, however, it remains to be seen how they will affect one subgroup of Burmese in India: the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority on Myanmar’s southwestern coast. Intensifying persecution by the Myanmar government has caused more than 100,000 Rohingyas to flee their country since 2012. Approximately 10,500 Rohingyas had registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ India office through the end of February, according to UNHCR public information officer Shuchita Mehta. The Indian government has no official refugee policy but allows UNHCR to monitor and coordinate service provision for Rohingyas. A December 2014 report cites UNHCR as estimating the number of unregistered Rohingyas in India as being in the thousands.

Researchers and NGO professionals working with India’s Rohingyas stress that instances of cross-border trafficking are limited. It is far more common for Rohingyas to pay agents to smuggle them into India, usually via Bangladesh. But cross-border trafficking of Rohingyas into India certainly does occur. IMPULSE’s team has come across trafficking of Rohingyas at several locations along Bangladesh’s northern border with India and around Moreh. Chris Lewa, director of a Rohingya-focused human rights NGO called the Arakan Project, stated in an e-mail that she encountered Rohingya women trafficked across the border for marriage during a research trip in 2011.

Rohingya persecution in Myanmar may prevent bilateral anti-human trafficking initiatives from being applied to Rohingya trafficking victims and survivors. Targeted restrictions on citizenship by the Myanmar government over the past few decades have sought to redefine Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh rather than citizens of Myanmar. Repatriation sends trafficking survivors to countries in which they have a right of permanent residence; almost all Rohingyas lack this in Myanmar. Even Rohingyas whose citizenship had previously been accepted by the Myanmar government have not been guaranteed the right of return. In November 2014, Myanmar rejected a proposal by Bangladesh to repatriate 2,400 Rohingyas with citizenship claims verified by the Myanmar government in 2005. The Rohingyas’ disastrous predicament at home has made international officials and NGO observers question whether repatriation is wise under the present circumstances.

Those circumstances show little signs of change. Earlier this year, the Burmese government stripped non-citizen Rohingyas of the temporary identification papers that would have allowed them to vote in the constitutional referendum announced for this May—this referendum has yet to take place. News reports make it clear that outflows continue apace. So long as the Rohingyas’ standing in Myanmar remains murky, so, too, will their future within India-Myanmar cross-border trafficking cooperation.

Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images

Edmund Downie is a Yale University Gordon Grand Fellow currently interning at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. He works on the regional political economy of Asia. Follow him at @ned_downie.

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