The interception this month of two boatloads of would-be asylum-seekers at virtually the polar opposites dramatizes once more the menacing problem of human smuggling and its international ramifications.
A boat-load claiming to be Sri Lankans trying to enter Australia illicitly was stopped early this month in mid-ocean by the Indonesia authorities after what appeared to be a diplomatic understanding between Canberra and Jakarta.
Stopped in their tracks as it were, the asylum-seekers threatened to blow up the vessel with all on board unless they were allowed to proceed. Later the 255- asylum seekers, including women and children, tried to pressure Indonesia and Australia by staging a hunger strike and refusing to leave the boat which was then at an Indonesian port.
The curtain will probably come down on this drama shortly. Whatever the denouement to this act, the insidious issue of human trafficking will not end with that. It is too lucrative a business with international criminal links to be abandoned because of the failure of some smuggling efforts.
While this drama was being played out in the southern hemisphere, in the northern Pacific off Canada’s west coast another boatload of 75 persons was stopped by the Canadian navy as they were heading for land.
The occupants of the boat headed for Australia are said to be Sri Lankan Tamils who had made their way to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and had been picked up by people smugglers.
It is believed that among the potential refugees are combatants of the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who had been hiding among civilians displaced by the war and are fleeing before they are picked up by Sri Lankan security.
It is well- known that human traffickers are operating in Southeast Asia and they, along with Sri Lankan agents, have been responsible for moving people from this part of the world to Australia by boat or to the west by devious land and air routes using forged or stolen passports and counterfeit visas.
Also this month German authorities had busted human smuggling ring operating in Europe.
These examples point to the global nature of the human trafficking problem which in its various forms has been raised and discussed at numerous international forums including the United Nations.
Besides the emergence of crime syndicates and the abuse of women from many countries, people trafficking also opens the doors to the movement of terrorists and terrorist supporters.
Unsuspecting nations have often given temporary or permanent residence to those who turn up on their doorstep only to discover later they are accommodating persons with a history of violence.
While countries facing the scourge of terrorism have tightened entry regulations for foreigners and enhanced border security, such measures are defeated by human traffickers who find means to beat the system.
Unfortunately the worrisome aspects of people trafficking do not appear to be sufficiently grasped. The fact is that it impacts on the legal movement of people, on law and order and has serious socio-political repercussions in the receiving countries.
Even if the problem has been understood, it does not always find reflection at the highest levels of international officialdom except in some peripheral way.
Take for instance the latest Human Development Report (HDR) 2009 launched in Bangkok earlier this month by UNDP administrator Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, at which the Prime Minister of Thailand Abhisit Vejjajiva was also present.
The HDR has generally been a very useful annual document for officials, researchers, journalists and others who keep an eye on the development process and the progress of nations in key social welfare sectors.
This year’s HDR deals with the subject of migration. It is perhaps understandable that when dealing with legal migration and advancing the cause of freedom of movement, of easing controls for migrant workers including seasonal labour, equal rights for migrants and related issues, the report would concentrate on those aspects.
But it seems to me that the troubling issue of human smuggling has much broader implications than the mere fact of moving people from Point A to Point B illegally as it impinges on society in many ways.
The numbers involved in human smuggling might be negligible relative to the general movement of people across the globe for purposes of permanent or temporary migration.
However the impact of the illicit movement of people is much wider than is reflected by the number of people smuggled illegally. It involves criminal elements-often well organized gangs-the violation of international borders, the illicit movement of funds and indeed money laundering, the transport of women for the sex industry and exploitation of labour, narcotics trade and readiness to use of violence in pursuit of these goals.
The Human Development Report is correct when it calls for the freer movement of labour. Curiously those who advocate the free movement of goods, services and capital stop short of calling for the same elasticity in the movement of people.
It seems that globalization means free trade and free capital movement from the rich industrialized countries to the developing world but not the free flow of labour in the opposite direction.
Besides the free flow of labor, the UNDP report calls on the recipient countries to grant equal rights to migrant workers and ensure that these rights are protected.
The UNDP report states: “It is vital to ensure that individual migrants settle in well on arrival, but it is also vital that the communities they join should not feel unfairly burdened by the additional demands they place on key services.”
Therein lies the rub. While genuine migrant workers-those who have come through the legitimate process- might be entitled to equal rights and probably be able to collectively demand them, the whole issue is complicated by the influx of refugees often deposited on foreign soil by people traffickers.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, the pressure on the services such as housing, health, education and transport, as a result of refugees and would be refugees, has not only taxed them heavily but has caused growing anger among the citizens who feel dispossessed for marginalized.
The rise of the political right in UK and in some European nations is partly because of the perception among some that they are being deprived of services that should rightly accrue to them.
This is compounded by the fact that under European Union regulations citizens of member states can move and work freely within the union. This has been the influx of labour from poorer countries of the EU to the richer ones creating some social tensions.
While the UNDP’s advocacy for greater rights for migrants is laudable, it needs to consider more deeply the socio-political implications of what it proposes.
That is why it is necessary to study the whole issue of people smuggling in depth, not only it terms of its impact on international crime, on domestic law and order in recipient countries, the nexus between human smuggling and other crimes such as terrorism, narcotics and traffic in women but on the social fabric of migrant receiving countries.
Even if the UNDP report could not do all that, it should have paid more attention to the issue of people smuggling than it has done. Had the issue this year not been migration, one might have thought that the couple of pages it had devoted to the subject were adequate.
But surely not when the subject is migration and regular stories of people smuggling make the front pages around the world, surely the issue deserves more than two pages in a 112-page report.
- Asian Tribune -
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