Twenty Sri Lankans who reportedly paid Rs 600,000 each for jobs abroad were sent to Thailand and dumped.
The agent in Colombo who promised the Sri Lankan men they would be sent to South Africa passed them on to a human trafficker in Bangkok as the next step in their onward journey. But somehow things went wrong. The men who were brought here two months ago were stuck in Bangkok with nowhere to go. Six of the men had managed to return to Sri Lanka. Last week others were looking for ways and means to return too. At least it could be said for the Bangkok agent, supposed to be of Sri Lankan origin according to one of those stranded here, the man had fed the job-seekers as he tried to find ways to send the rest to South Africa.
Bangkok has become a favoured transit point for Sri Lankans wishing to travel often illegally, further east, to Europe or even to African nations such as South Africa, perhaps because it is easier than most places to enter the country. At times they come directly from Sri Lanka passing off as tourists or are brought here from neighbouring countries by human traffickers using porous borders or other dubious means. The agents then disappear with the Sri Lankan passports, providing them with purportedly genuine passports of other nations. Or the Sri Lankan passports are stamped with forged entry visas for some western country. Several such detections have been made by Thai authorities.
Still others in search of jobs abroad or a new haven try to reach other Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia or use them as transit points from where human smugglers try to take them by boat to Australia. Australia itself has made several such detections in recent months and some potential refugees have been stopped in their tracks on some off-shore island or returned to Sri Lanka. While human trafficking of and by Sri Lankans has been an increasing phenomenon, it has had its peaks and troughs, reaching its high points when the complexion of the situation at home changed, just as it did in the months before the offensive against the LTTE reached its denouement. It would be a mistake to assume that all those who pay human smugglers to facilitate travel to foreign lands are all Tamils, especially those caught up in the conflict. The 20 job seekers mentioned above were all from the Sinhala community while many of those who have set out to get to Italy from Sri Lanka’s northwestern coastal areas are also Sinhala people.
This growing phenomenon of human trafficking unfortunately gets only passing reference in the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2009 that was launched in Bangkok last week. The report was launched by Helen Clark, the head of UNDP and former Prime Minister of New Zealand in the presence of the Prime Minister of Thailand Abhisit Vejjajiva. When I spoke to Helen Clark over lunch I told her that I thought there was this lacuna in the report. We did discuss this further and the former Prime Minister then put me on to the leader of the team that prepared the report, Jeni Klugman. She, coincidentally, is a sister of Kathy Klugman, the Australian High Commissioner to Colombo.
Helen Clark did concede that this aspect of human trafficking was only dealt peripherally in the report. As Jeni Klugman explained the report this year had as its theme ‘ and dealt extensively with the specific problem of migrant labour. There too, the report looked at legal migration, the importance of migration to the sending country as well as the receiving country and the need to ensure that migrants have rights, how those rights should be protected, where they exist and how to urge the granting of such rights where they do not exist. My point was that human trafficking/ smuggling is an intrinsic part of the larger question of migration and that people and politicians in countries that accept migrants are beginning to be more restrictive in their migration policies and are gradually starting to narrow the rights of newcomers because of the illegal activities of human traffickers.
On the issue of human trafficking the HDR 2009 states: “The images associated with trafficking are often horrendous, and attention tends to focus on its association with sexual exploitation, organized crime, violent abuse and economic exploitation………..Above all, trafficking is associated with restrictions on human freedom and violation of basic human rights.”
It seems to me that this ignores several aspects of the problem. It is granted the Human Development Report 2009 was not dealing with this issue and hence it would not have looked at the problem of human trafficking in its entirety. That is understandable. But at least a passing reference to other aspects of the issue which some of us have seen from both ends- that is from the standpoint of a country whose citizens are seeking ‘new pastures’ and from that of a country that accepts migrants, might have been very useful.
Internal conflict, especially armed violence, does tend to hasten migration. People seek legitimate and illegitimate means of entering a country of their choice and, if that is not possible, virtually any country. But the country they wish to settle in is also dependent on several factors such as the presence thereof family, relatives or friends, accessibility, financial outlays, transport etc.
Another factor is that conflict, often serves as an excuse for persons to seek asylum, particularly in the west. I know of several cases in UK where those who sought asylum and stayed on as refugees were not directly affected by the conflict but found it a valid cause to plead in hearings and often presented authorities with ‘proof’ of victimisation that was not factually correct. But such concocted stories went a long way in establishing their case for asylum and resulted in a much larger influx of would-be refugees than were anticipated.
The consequence of this was the build-up of local antipathy and a popular backlash against migration in general as these new settlers were seen to be benefitting from the social services such as education, medical, housing and transport that were meant for the nationals of the hoots country. Conflicts then served the purpose of economic migrants who were not necessarily from the group or community that was affected by conflict. They were looking for a better life and probably a more secure future for their children.
Those who turned to human traffickers for a means of entering another country were not necessarily those who were affected by a restriction on freedom or whose human rights were violated. There were those who paid human traffickers and went through the dangers of placing their trust in human smugglers not because they were denied human rights but because they hoped to improve their lives. They became part of the illegal human traffic by their own volition.
So when the UNDP talks in terms of ensuring the rights of migrants and lobbying nations to provide migrants with those rights one needs to assess the impact of the growing problem of human trafficking and illegal entry of persons on the society and politics of the host countries.