Engy Abdelkader is a Legal Fellow with the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Amid continued communal strife in Myanmar, Muslim women and children are increasingly finding themselves in vulnerable situations that have yet to be adequately recognized and addressed. This post glimpses the related issue of human trafficking.
By way of background, Burma’s record on human trafficking has prompted the United States to place it on a Tier 2 Watch List for the past two years. The Watch List is reserved for countries that fail to comply with minimum standards — from preventing trafficking to investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of the crime to protecting victims — as set forth in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).
In Myanmar, security forces have subjected both Muslim men and women to forced labor. Women, however, have been reportedly forced into prostitution and other forms of slavery as well. In fact, according to a U.S. Department of State 2012 human rights report, Burmese officials have reportedly kidnapped Rohingya women and forced them into slavery on military bases.
Burmese security forces also systematically rape and assault women and girls which also contributes to human trafficking and exploitation.
Representative are experiences like Sakinah Kahtu’s, an 18-year-old Rohingya girl forced to leave her village in Rakhine State due to worsening sectarian violence to travel with human traffickers by sea to Malaysia together with other fleeing Muslims.
Her parents feared that if she remained, the Burmese security forces might sexually assault her, as they have a number of others, or may otherwise subject her to forced labor. In hopes of securing her safety, they paid traffickers nearly $300 to transport her to Malaysia.
Kahtu travelled by sea for 15 days in a vessel that carried approximately 500 passengers, including 60 women and children. She received one meal per day during her ordeal. Prior to arriving in Malaysia, however, Kahtu’s traffickers detained her in Thailand for three days.
There, a stranger and fellow Rohingya paid $2,520 to secure her release and complete her journey to Malaysia. In return, Kahtu’s fellow villagers allowed the young man to wed her.
Notably, many do not make it to their ultimate destination because they are arrested en route and detained by authorities in Thailand. Women and children detained at government run detention centers remain vulnerable to traffickers who have gained access to the buildings, where detainees should theoretically enjoy official protection.
Such traffickers may promise detainees reunification with family members, but after smuggling them out of the centers, rape the unsuspecting victim(s).