Rohingyas at risk of trafficking, exploitation, human rights abuses, says new study

The vulnerability of the Rohingya community was studied upon by three Rohingya refugee groups and a Netherlands-based NGO

A Rohingya refugee in India (Photo: Getty Images)
A Rohingya refugee in India (Photo: Getty Images)

Ashlin Mathew

Rohingyas are vulnerable to trafficking for different forms of exploitation and to human rights violations resulting from statelessness, states a study by three Rohingya refugee groups and the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion — an NGO based in The Netherlands.

The briefing paper "Surviving Statelessness And Trafficking: A Rohingya Case Study of Intersections And Protection Gaps" underscores that both the Myanmar security forces, and the Arakan Army rebel group are responsible for “human smuggling and trafficking, both facilitating travel and abusing Rohingya travellers en route…” Without any citizenship, the vast majority of Rohingyas are unable to obtain travel documents, it adds.

Rohingyas are trafficked into India. The report states that some Rohingyas have been trafficked into bonded labour, domestic servitude, sex work, and for marriage. Socioeconomic pressures, increased restrictions and threats to security, alongside experiences of xenophobia and islamophobia have also driven a ‘reverse migration’ of Rohingyas attempting to flee India to Bangladesh or sometimes Myanmar.

Due to the heightened insecurity and fear in the community following the arrests and detentions, some Rohingyas have attempted to flee India back into Bangladesh. Since May 2022, some 2,000 Rohingya who had taken refuge in India, crossed over to Bangladesh.

Not all attempts to flee back to Bangladesh have been successful. Some Rohingyas have been detained in other states while travelling. In May 2022, at least 26 Rohingya refugees were detained in Assam and 24 in Tripura. Most of them were reportedly travelling from Jammu.

The statelessness of the Rohingyas has compounded the risks of exploitation and other human rights abuses at the hands of brokers and state authorities. This includes abduction, extortion, forced labour and other forms of labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, torture, death, arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention and refoulement. Further, the study pointed out that the intergenerational nature of Rohingya displacement and statelessness creates barriers to securing durable solutions.

It adds, “Lack of income increases household financial pressures and creates the impetus for families to seek early marriage for their daughters or to take risks in sending them abroad. Rape is reportedly extremely common while en route to Southeast Asia or India. Often girls and women travel for marriage. If they are raped or become pregnant as a result of rape, they are often rejected for marriage on arrival. Some Rohingya women in India and Bangladesh have been trafficked into commercial sex work. Women and girls can be more vulnerable to these forms of sexual exploitation if they have past experiences of sexual assault.”

In India, the legal status of Rohingyas has become increasingly precarious, leaving them at risk of forced repatriation or refoulement to Myanmar as well as arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention. This erosion of Rohingyas’ legal status and protections in India has impacted living conditions and access to services leading to increasing insecurities and vulnerabilities, states the paper. Rohingyas in Malaysia do not have the right to work or a formal legal status.

Protection for Rohingya refugees in India deteriorated further from August 2017 onwards. On 9 August 2017, the then-Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, told Parliament that there were around 40,000 Rohingyas in India (a disputed) and that “powers to identify, detain and deport illegally staying foreign nationals, including Rohingyas, have been delegated to state governments/UT [Union Territory] Administrations”. A day before that the Indian government had issued a notice to all state governments outlining the need to identify Rohingyas in anticipation of deportation to Myanmar.

Two Rohingyas petitioned the Supreme Court of India, challenging the deportation order on 30 August 2017, but a subsequent interim order from the Court (8 April 2021) upheld the deportation policy. After the 2017 declaration of Rohingya entry into India as “illegal”, the number of Rohingyas detained in India has steadily increased. Exact numbers are hard to verify, however, community-led organisations claim that around 600 individuals have been detained, according to their records.

The study recommends that refugees be granted the right to work and education, safe migration routes, documentation leading to naturalisation in host countries, and UNHCR access to detention centres.

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