Season 1, Episode 6: Human Trafficking and Ethnic Cleansing - The Plight of the Rohingya


You’re listening to Episode 6 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Emily Wang.

This episode will explore how human trafficking is used for ethnic cleansing and systematic discrimination against Rohingya muslims.

In November of 2016, the UN accused the government of Myanmar of “carrying out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.” Unfortunately, this was not the first time such an accusation has been made. You may have heard about the Rohingya in the news recently. They are an ethnic minority in Myanmar who are suffering from ethnic cleansing. Because of the extreme oppression they face, the UN estimates that as of this August, about “370,000 of 1.1 million Rohingya have taken refuge in Bangladesh.”

But what is the relationship between Myanmar and the Rohingya? Why is the Myanmar government against the Rohingya, and who are the Rohingya in the first place? The Rohingya are known as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. A majority of them are Muslim, and have lived for centuries in Myanmar, a country that is predominantly Buddhist. The Rohingya people have continually suffered from systematic discrimination from the people in Myanmar. Rohingya muslims live in ghetto-like neighborhoods in the Rakhine state, the poorest state of Myanmar, and are placed under stringent governmental regulation. These regulations even restrict their ability to leave the country.

But this doesn’t explain why the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities. Historically, the Rohingya are descendants of Persians or Arab traders who came to “Arakan,” the current Rakhine state in the 12th century. During the 100 years of British Rule in Myanmar, there was a mass migration of Rohingya laborers from India and Bangladesh to Myanmar. The Human Rights watch explains what affect this migration had on the Rohingya: “After Myanmar's independence, the government viewed the migration that took place during British rule as "illegal, and it is on this basis that they refuse citizenship to the majority of Rohingya." In fact, in 1948 they passed the Union Citizenship Act which did not include the Rohingya muslims as citizens but it did include the other ethnic groups who migrated to Myanmar long after the Rohingya.

The government implemented other citizenship policies to further persecute the Rohingya. In 1962, all citizens were required to obtain national registration cards, which were not granted to the Rohingyas. They were only given foreign identification cards which limited their access to education, healthcare and job opportunities such as medicine law, and running for office. They are considered “naturalized” and not perceived as a part of the mainstream Myanmar society. This discredits the value of the “Rohingya” identity and their history in Myanmar.

The government’s treatment of the Rohingya allowed the citizens who belong to the Buddhist majority to view the Rohingya as “others” and only made them feel entitled to oppress the Rohingya more. Aside from the enjoying much more privilege than the Rohingya muslims in the workplace, education and health care services, the Myanmar people violently harass the Rohingya. There have been multiple reported violent outbreaks over the border of Rakhine state, where the Rohingya live. The troops sent by the government to the border lines of the Rakhine state have repetitively harassed the Rohingya and caused violence that resulted in deaths and severe injuries.

While the violence and oppression against the Rohingya is an obvious case of human rights violations, how do their circumstances relate to human trafficking? Let’s look at the story of Sakinah Kahtu, which was first published in the Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Sakinah is an 18-year-old Rohingya girl who was forced to leave her village due to worsening violence in the Rakhine state. Like many other Rohingya girls, Sakinah faced sexual harassment and forced labor on a daily basis. It is reported that the Burmese security forces consistently subject Rohingya people to forced labor and sex slavery on military bases.

To escape this oppression, Sakinah Kahtu’s parents paid traffickers nearly $300 to transport her to Malaysia. They did not realize that they are putting Sakinah into even worse circumstances.

Sakinah travelled by sea for half a month in a vessel packed with 500 passengers, 60 of which were women and children. She received only one meal per day. Before arriving in Malaysia, however, Kahtu’s traffickers kept her in Thailand for three days. A stranger and fellow Rohingya paid $2,520 to secure her release and complete her journey to Malaysia. However, in return, Kahtu’s fellow villagers allowed the young man to marry her.

Sadly, Sakinah’s story is not unusual. In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it had identified 120 Rohingya child brides in Malaysia. Another report quoted a former trafficking agent, a Rohingya man, who said that there is growing demand for Rohingya brides because traffickers can make up to $1,700 for each girl they return to their family or sell to a man.

Sakinah eventually made it to Malaysia, but only because she was sold to someone as their bride. Like Sakinah, many Rohingya are first detained by authorities in Thailand. Unlike Sakinah, their journey ends in Thailand, which is a country that has known for being a transit country for human trafficking. The so-called governmental detainment of Rohingya people does not include any governmental protection. In fact, women and children held at government run detention centers remain vulnerable to traffickers who gain access to the buildings, even though they should be safe there in theory. Those traffickers promise the detainees reunification with family members or job opportunities in order to smuggle them out of the detention center. Instead, they rape the victims or sell the victims to sex slavery or marriage.

Sakinah was an adult when she fled Myanmar, but unlike Sakinah, many Rohingya escape from Myanmar when they are still children. Because they travel alone, they are exposed to even more dangers, such as being caught and having their organs removed and sold. Several massive grave sites near the Thailand-Myanmar border have been exposed and the bodies are believed to be that of the Rohingya muslims, some of which are as young as 12. Investigation regarding this atrocious human trafficking of Rohingya muslims has been postponed for years in both countries. It is believed that several high-level government officials took part in the human trafficking.

Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand’s governments have proven to be insufficient in their efforts to combat human trafficking. In fact, the leader of Myanmar has not substantially responded to this issue because of her fear of losing power. The originally appointed Thai executor has resigned due to his fear of being associated with the dark side of the politics.

Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch, best summed up the situation when he said: "There needs to be more prosecution against traffickers as well as more work on the rehabilitation of trafficking victims."

From the persecution of the Rohingya, we can see how several governments have enabled human trafficking by allowing traffickers to enter the theoretically protected detention centers of Rohingyas muslims. Human trafficking, a human rights violation, is being done used to facilitate another violation, ethnic cleansing. Human trafficking is not only used as a way to make profit, but also as a way to carry out systematic oppression. The continual problem of human trafficking has further marginalized the Rohingya by normalizing the abuse and commercial selling of this minority group.

Given the extreme circumstances the Rohingya are enduring, it may seem as if the situation is hopeless. However, many organizations provide aid for Rohingya refugees in Asia, such as Save the Children, which focuses on providing shelter, cooking and hygiene kits for refugees, especially children travelling by themselves. Organizations outside of Asia, such as the Devon Oasis Center in Chicago, also help Rohingya refugees adjust to life outside of Myanmar. While you may not be able to visit Myanmar or its neighboring countries to help in the Rohingya refugee crisis, you can certainly support the organizations that already do.

This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Emily Wang. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on November 12th at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.

Additional Information:
Human Rights Report:
Sakinah Kahtu’s Story:
The Rohingya:

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