A human trafficking syndicate committed crimes against humanity between 2012 and 2015 against Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees trying to flee to Malaysia and Thailand, two Southeast Asia-based human rights groups said in a report on Wednesday.
In the joint 121-page work titled “Sold Like Fish,” the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and the Bangkok-based Fortify Rights provides accounts of survivors who were deceived by the traffickers, believing they were boarding boats to seek refuge abroad.
Once on board, the captive Rohingya suffered abuse at sea. On-board conditions were dire, as there was inadequate space, food and water. Many were the victims of torture or rape, and some were murdered or committed suicide during the voyage.
Their lot did not improve once they arrived on shore, as victims were held in what the Fortify Rights describes as “conditions of enslavement.”
“Members of a transnational criminal syndicate—including in some cases government officials—conceived, managed, supported, and operated camps in Thailand and Malaysia where traffickers deprived Rohingya men, women, and children of their liberty and treated them as chattel,” the report said.
The study is based on 270 interviews with both survivors and officials who describe experiences in internment camps near the Thai-Malaysian border. The Malaysian government has appointed a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the dumping of dead victims in Perlis state in 2015. That report is due to come out in June.
“The victims of these crimes and their families suffered tremendously, and these horrific crimes should never happen again in Malaysia and anywhere else for that matter,” said SUHAKAM Commissioner Jerald Joseph.
“This report provides new evidence that we hope will help ensure justice for victims, accountability for perpetrators, and policy changes to strengthen the Malaysian and regional response to human trafficking,” he said.
The report details how victims were beaten with various objects, tortured with tasers and nails, or other methods.
The torture intensified if the victims had no ability to pay for their release.
“When I was unable to pay the money to the men, they poured boiling water on my head and body. I have wounds and scars. Then they took green chilies and rubbed them under my eyes,” said one of the victims, Rahim Ullah, who was 16 at the time of the abuse.
He was not able to pay $2000 that the traffickers demanded of him, nor could he arrange for family members or friends to send money to bail him out.
He went on to describe how he and others were intimidated with guns and made to lie on the ground as guards walked on their necks.
The report estimated that traffickers made between $50 and 100 million from the victims. Many who could not secure their release died in captivity.
"For years, this was a calculated business and coordinated transnational attack on the Rohingya community," said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights.
"The massive scale and horrific severity of these operations were never properly documented or fully prosecuted. This new evidence demonstrates the need for accountability."
In April 2015, Thai authorities discovered a mass grave in a camp near the Malaysian border containing more than 30 corpses that they suspected were Rohingya and Bangladeshi victims of human trafficking. One month later Malaysian police found 139 graves and 28 camps in Wang Kelian, Perlis State, Malaysia.
International crimes against the Rohingya within Myanmar have been reported widely, but this report is the first to shed light on the extent of crimes against them outside of the country.
In 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya were driven out of Myanmar’s northern Rakhine during a massive military counter-offensive, which the United States and the U.N. described as ethnic cleansing. The retaliatory operation took place after Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar security outposts, sparking an exodus of refugees into Bangladesh.
The report recommended that the government of Malaysia and the Royal Commission of Inquiry move quickly to investigate and gather evidence while avoiding delays that would affect evidence.
They also called for the prosecution of all people responsible for the crimes or who are proved to have intentionally delayed the investigation in Wang Kelian to destroy evidence.
The rights groups also want the government to ensure that investigative procedures align with international standards, and that victims are legally protected and afforded rights in accordance with their legal status.
The report also calls for transparency by the royal commission and that any trafficking victims held in immigration detention facilities be immediately released and with all immigration-related charges immediately dropped.
“There’s fresh political will in Malaysia to right these wrongs and ensure justice and accountability for Rohingya and all victims of these heinous crimes,” said Joseph. “The international community should do everything in its power to address the root causes of this crisis in Myanmar.”
Malaysia’s Home Ministry office, former Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar and the Royal Malaysian Police did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment when contacted by Benar News, an RFA affilated online news service.