Locked in paradise: The paradox of protecting trafficked victims in Thailand

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The 20015 TIP report has been issued last week and, as predicted, Thailand landed in Tier 3 again. But I don’t want to dwell on the reactions to the Tier 3 ranking, rather I want to share a few thoughts about the changes Thailand might consider to revise their anti-trafficking efforts, especially when it comes to protection of survivors.

Thailand’s conceptualization of victim protection seems to be very narrow. It focuses mainly on physical safety of victims. In order to ensure the safety of victims, the Thai government runs several shelters where survivors are kept during the so-called ‘identification process.’ The term seems to be a misnomer. The victims have already been found—identified–but now have to go through a legal process, often very lengthy, which determines whether they will receive their back wages or damages. The payment of back wages or assessment of damages hinges very much on the strength of the court case against the traffickers. It seems that “identification” really means prosecution. Survivors—regardless of age–must collaborate with law enforcement to get a change to receive any money the courts might decide is owed the survivors.

I had a chance to visit some of the shelters this past month. The shelters are located on the outskirts of Bangkok, far away from any modes of public transportation. One is situated on a small island in the middle of a river and can only be reached by a boat. All of the shelters I visited were spacious, clean, and well maintained. The sprawling gardens surrounding them are luscious and beautifully landscaped with birds of paradise flowers and other breathtaking flora. While the residents can walk around the gardens to their hearts content, they cannot leave the premises unless accompanied by a government officer or guard. In one of the shelters, the Rohingya men worked and could go shopping, but never without a watchful eye of the shelter official. Women do not have the same priviledges. They have no means of transportation for one, but the shelter authorities are also worried that their charges–adults or children–may not return to the shelter if allowed to go anywhere on their own.

When I asked why the boys residing in one of the shelters could not go to school one a school bus, the director said: “They would escape in no time and return to begging in the streets.” At a shelter for women, I was told that the women don’t want to leave the premises because they are afraid of the pimps and madams that might be lurking around. Perhaps…. But there was no proof of anybody skulking around the island.

According to the shelter staff, most survivors do not identify as victims of trafficking. “They don’t know any better,” said one shelter director. “We have to convince them that that’s who they are,” she said. Most survivors eventually agree to the designation as trafficked victims. This is their only chance to attempt to recoup the back wages.

Shelter residents are provided with three square meals, comfortable beds, clean clothes, but little else. Mental health counseling and occupational therapy do not lead to development of new skills. The Thai anti-trafficking law does not provide for any immigration relief or temporary residency permits outside the government-run shelters. Work permits are also limited. The only option at the end of the long legal process is to return home—to Burma, Laos, Cambodia–to the poverty that the men, women, and children tried to escape. If they are lucky they return with a few hundred dollars at most. If they are Rohingya, they have no home to which to return.

It seems that issuing residency and work permits—even temporary ones—would go a long way towards ensuring protection of victims. The concept of protection ought to be expanded to include rights: a right to exercise one’s agency, a right to free, unescorted movement, and a right not to be locked up. Expansion of rights is also the best mental health remeay for the trauma these exploited workers endured.

The notion of protection needs to be also extended to safe return home, but that is a topic for another blog.


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Thailand waits with baited breath for the release of the 2015 TIP report

It is almost the middle of July 2015 and the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which is usually released in June, has not been issued yet. Many countries are waiting with baited breath to see their ranking. Thailand is one such country.

In 2014 Thailand was downgraded in the TIP Report to the bottom-of-the-pile Tier 3 ranking the “Global Sheriff,” as Janie Chuang aptly calls the J/TIP office in the U.S. State Department, established to judge countries on their anti-trafficking activities. Many criticisms have been leveled against the TIP Report in the past: in opinion pieces and blog posts[1] as well as journal articles.[2] One of the most common criticisms of the TIP Report is that it exists to serve the political interests of the United States. Researchers, however, also emphasize a flawed methodology that is used to rank countries.

I am not sure if the methodology is good or bad since it’s hard to assess what methodology the J/TIP uses. The 2014 TIP Report included five sentences on “methodology.” The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) doubted whether these sentences even qualify to be called a methodology section. Indeed, the report lists the types of organizations from which it gets information without mentioning specific government departments or agencies. There is also no information whether or how the received information is vetted, whether it is based on empirical research or administrative data or opinions expressed by those that submit the information.

 The U.S. Department of State prepared this Report using information from  U.S. embassies, government officials, non-governmental and international    organizations, published reports, news articles, academic studies, research This email address provides a means by which organizations and individuals can share information with the Department of State on government progress in  addressing trafficking. U.S. diplomatic posts and domestic agencies reported on the trafficking situation and governmental action to fight trafficking based on thorough research that included meetings with a wide variety of government officials, local and international NGO trips to every region of the world, and information submitted to tipreport@state.gov representatives, officials of international organizations, journalists, academics, and survivors. U.S. missions overseas are dedicated to covering human trafficking issues. The   2014 TIP Report covers government efforts undertaken from April 1, 2013 through March 31, 2014. [3]

My discussions with government representatives and NGOs in Bangkok indicate that neither the Thai civil servants nor the civil society understand how the ranking system works and against what criteria the information they provided is evaluated. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, did not receive a satisfactory answer to their query why J/TIP assessed the prosecutions that the Thai government launched in 2014 as low. Were these numbers assessed against previous year’s prosecutions (indeed the number of persecutions in 2014 was lower than in 2013), against the number of identified survivors of trafficking or against estimates of trafficked victims?

Solid data on trafficking is hard to come by in Thailand. The Ministry of Social Development that is responsible for funding and providing services to survivors of human trafficking does not release the data that government-run shelters for victims report to the Ministry. I visited the Kredtrakarn Protection and Occupational Development Centre (Nonthaburi Province) last week and asked the director how many victims she served last year. She wouldn’t tell me; she said this is confidential information. She did mention, however, that she could house as many as 200 victims at any given time and that 180 survivors of trafficking were living in the shelter on the day visited. I tried to play simple math with her and asked average number of victims served every year, the number of months victims stay in the shelter, but to no avail. I asked a similar question of an intergovernmental organization that provides assistance to victims and the silence was deafening. Why this fear of sharing information? Obviously, I was not asking for names of victims or any other type of data that should be protected by privacy laws.

Local NGOs were more forthcoming with information. The Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) and the Labor Promotion Network (LPN) told me they had served about 500 victims each in the last 10 years. Is that a lot? Again, it is hard to make an assessment, as we don’t know to what to compare these numbers. Given the limited resources each organization has—foreign donors exclusively fund both—it seems that the caseloads are substantial. However, given the challenges of estimating the number of trafficked persons in Thailand—see a rather robust attempt by Courtland Robinson of the Johns Hopkins University, in collaboration with Sompong Srakaew of LPN, to assess the number of trafficked victims among Burmese labor workers in Samut Sakhon[4]–these numbers are really meaningless.

Thailand is waiting for the TIP Report in an empirical vacuum and worries as it follows testimonies of people such as Mark Lagon, the former Ambassador at Large in the J/TIP office, who urged the U.S. government to sustain a tier-three ranking should the government of Thailand not show strong will to take corrective action to address human trafficking in short order.[5]

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think there is no trafficking in Thailand. Even during my short visit, supported by the Fulbright Program, I have seen and heard advocates and scholars alike talk about egregious labor exploitation in many industries, but especially in the fishing industry. Earlier this year—in May 2015—the Thai police discovered a few dozen graves on the Thai-Malaysia border of Muslim Rohingyas, who according to the police reports were “starved to death or died of disease while being held by traffickers who were awaiting payment of ransoms.”[6]

The Thai government is making improvements to its response to human trafficking. On July 8, 2015 the Bangkok Post reported that authorities are setting up a special inter-agency body to strengthen investigations of human trafficking cases. The new unit includes representatives of the Royal Thai Police Office, the Department of Special Investigation, and the Social Development and Human Security Ministry.[7]

As Thailand waits for the TIP ranking, Reuters reports that its neighbor—Malaysia—has been upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List. Some human rights advocates and U.S. lawmakers expected Malaysia to remain in Tier 3. If the number of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers is a measure of complying with the minimum standards of anti-trafficking activities, Malaysia had reported 89 human-trafficking investigations in 2013, down from 190, and nine convictions compared with 21 in 2012.[8] If indeed Malaysia appears on Tier 2 Watch List in the coming days, we will know that foreign and trade-policy drive the U.S. ranking system more so than empirical data. Malaysia is the current chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is seeking to promote unity within the bloc in the face of China’s increasingly assertive pursuits of territorial claims in the South China Sea, an object of U.S. criticism. Malaysia also hopes to be a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPP would link a dozen countries, cover 40 percent of the world economy and form a central element of President Obama’s strategic shift towards Asia.

[1] See Laura Augustin’s op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer (July 1, 2007) or a blog posted from 2009 http://www.lauraagustin.com/whats-wrong-with-the-trafficking-crusade http://www.lauraagustin.com/tip-trafficking-in-persons-the-no-methodology-report

[2] See Janie Chuang (2006), The United States as Global Sheriff: Using Unilateral Sanctions to Combat Human Trafficking. Michigan Journal of International Law 25: 437-494. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=990098

[3] See http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2014/226645.htm

[4] See the report http://www.no-trafficking.org/reports_docs/estimates/uniap_estimating_labor_trafficking_report.pdf

[5] See the full testimony here http://www.cfr.org/global/illicit-fishing-human-trafficking/p32708

[6] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/05/02/asia/thailand-mass-graves/

[7] http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/general/616072/new-inter-agency-body-to-boost-probes

[8] http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/07/09/uk-usa-malaysia-trafficking-exclusive-idUKKCN0PJ00D20150709


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Yes to Kebab, no to Muslim migrants

The Polish blogosphere has been overtaken by ‘discussions’ about–or should I say, expressions of hatred towards—Muslim refugees and migrants. The debate intensified when the European Union proposed binding quotas on asylum seekers for its 28 member states. Poland vehemently opposed these plans.

Poles took to the Internet to express their outrage about the possibility of admitting Muslim refugees and migrants. The better mannered commentators pointed out cultural and religious difference between Catholic Poles and Muslim migrants that would prevent integration of the latter into the Polish society. Those with less restraint called Muslims ‘’lazy, passive and intolerant savages who treat women poorly, ruin whole neighborhoods, behead passerbys, and comit terrorist attacks.”[1]

Many Poles see Muslims as a threat to European identity. They are afraid that Sharia laws will replace the Polish legal system and cite Nigel Farage who has claimed “that ‘ghettos’ in parts of the UK are being run according to Sharia law as authorities ‘turn a blind eye’ because of their ‘moral cowardice’.”[2] I know that hatred and racism are not rational feelings, but I often wonder whether a bit more education about Islam and Muslims would positively affect the Poles’ attitudes toward Muslims. Perhaps the education should start with a historical look at Muslim minorities in Poland.

Yes, there are Muslims in Poland. The presence of Muslims in Poland dates back to the 14th century when Tartars settled in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In northeastern Poland there are villages where Muslim Tartars have lived peacefully alongside their Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brethren for a long time. I remember taking my anthropology students to Sokółka and Bohoniki to see the peaceful co-existence of different religions and cultures in the late 1970s. Konrad Pędziwiatr estimates the number of Muslims in Poland between 25,000 and 40,000 people.[3] At a conference at the Józef Tischner European University in Krakow in July 2011 panelists talked about Poles of Syrian, Egyptian and Turkish origin—whose families arrived after 1970–who play an important role in civic and community organizations in different parts of the country. The consensus was that Muslims are contributing members of the society and should feel welcomed in Poland.

What a difference 4 years makes! When Ewa Kopacz, the Polish Prime Minister, announced in the summer of 2015 that the country would take in 60 Syrian refugee families[4] of Christian faith, Poles breathed a sign of relief. The debate leading to the announcement was anything but welcoming. In my hometown of Poznan—that would take 10 of the 60 families—the local TV show aired a discussion between Krystian Golec of the All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska), a Polish youth organization based on nationalistic doctrine, and Dr. Mariusz Marszewski from the Eastern Institute (Instytut Wschodni) of the Adam Mickiewicz University.[5] In the discussion Mr. Golec showed a great deal of ignorance about Christianity in Syria and was shocked when Professor Marszewski talked about Christian Syrians being culturally Arab. Somehow the Arab identity of Christian Syrians did not fit into Mr. Golec’s visions of cultural similarities between them and the Catholic Poles.

The ignorance of many Poles shows also in total lack of understanding of how the international refugee regime works and who bears the financial responsibility for refugees. The opponents of admitting Muslim refugees to Poland shout loudly about the financial burden refugees would place on the Polish society. In reality, ¾ of the funds needed to resettle refugees would come from the European Union’s Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund, while ¼ would come from the Polish government. In the case of the 60 families, the total cost would be four million PLN or a little over one million US dollars. The Estera Foundation, a Polish non-governmental organization, claims that they are able to guarantee to maintain and care for 1,500 persecuted Christians from Syria. They refugees would receive a Polish language training, case management, and integration assistance. All of these actions would be financed with private money, not taxpayers’ money.

Sadly, reason and mathematical calculations fall on deaf ears. The nationalists are eager to welcome the descendants of Poles sent to Kazakhstan and Siberia in the previous century. They united in their desire under the slogan: We don’t want immigrants, we want repatriates! When Poles appreciate multiculturalism, they limit their appreciation of diversity to culinary offerings people from other countries can provide. As my friend and colleague, Professor Michal Buchowski says: They say yes to kebab, but no to Islam.

[1] See commentaries to an article written by Roza Thun, a Polish politician, in the Polish Daily Gazeta Wyborcza where she invites Catholic Poles to follow the Bible and welcome the stranger.


[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/nigel-farage-claims-there-are-nogo-zones-for-nonmuslims-in-french-cities-on-fox-news-9976907.html

[3] http://www.krakowpost.com/2011/08/muslims-at-home-in-poland/

[4] Estera, a Polish non-governmental organization, asked the government to allow 1,500 Syrian Christians to live in Poland. The NGO said charities, businesses and churches could cover living costs for the refugees.

[5] http://wtkplay.pl/video-id-18674-z_syrii_do_poznania

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Anti-Rumor Campaign in Bilbao: Fighting Fiction with Facts (and some fun)

I spent the month of May 2016 at the Deusto University in Bilbao, Spain teaching in the Erasmus Mundus Master’s in International Migration and Social Cohesion (MISOCO) program. It was a delightful experience. While my students were learning from me about the U.S. refugee resettlement system, the challenges facing Central American children and adolescents fleeing violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and debating the trend to medicalize human suffering, I was learning about international migration and immigrant integration in the Basque Country.

The foreign-born population in Spain hovers around 11%; only 2.1% of the 4.4 million immigrants reside in the Basque Country. The highest percentage of immigrants settled in the Basque Country come from Columbia (11.8%), Bolivia (9.7%), Romania (8.8%), followed by Morocco, Portugal and Ecuador (7.5% each). They are virtually invisible in the city center, however, in neighborhoods such as San Francisco immigrants—especially immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa—constitute as much as 20% of the residents. Because of the presence of immigrants San Francisco gets a very bad rap. Some of the Spaniards I talked to—highly educated and well-travelled people—often mentioned that they would not venture into the neighborhood of San Francisco for the fear of the alleged crimes—drug-dealing, prostitution, and theft–propagated by immigrants. Popular tourist sites such as tripdvisor.com or virtualtourist.com feed these fears.

The onset of the economic crisis in 2008 further affected the negative attitudes towards immigrants as native workers faced many challenges in the Spanish labor market. Of course, immigrants faced the same challenges, but the perception that foreigners threaten the economic well-being of locals began to feed the rumor mill: the number of immigrants—especially from Africa and Roma from Romania—are on the rise; immigrants take away from Spaniards not only jobs, but are depleting the pool of money available for the basic minimum income scheme for the poor. In order to squash these rumors, Bilbao—following Barcelona—has launched a clever public service campaign to dispel misconceptions and the prejudices that many local people held about minorities and immigrants. The campaign dispatches the Anti-Rumor Network members to different neighborhoods, places where people gather informally, local civic centers, and the homes of their own family members to fight fiction with fact and a lot of humor.

For those who understand Spanish, you can see a sample of the Anti-Rumor Campaign here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pNEZTQ7u-0

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Afong means strength

[Here is a sneak peek at the Preface to my book manuscript on trafficked children]

It was a crisp fall afternoon in 2013. I was waiting in front of the Silver Diner in suburban Maryland to meet Evelyn. Several years older than when I first interviewed her, Evelyn has not lost her exuberance. Pushing her 10-month old son in a stroller to the restaurant where we planned to have a late lunch, Evelyn smiled and waved as soon as she spotted me. With one hand holding onto the baby’s carriage, she used her other arm to envelop me in a warm hug.

Evelyn is a survivor of domestic servitude. For two years she lived in her trafficker’s house in Greenbelt, Maryland, completely isolated from outside contact: she was not permitted to speak with her family or even answer the door. She was not allowed to go to school. In 1995, Evelyn’s mother and uncle sold her to Theresa Mubang, an acquaintance of Evelyn’s maternal uncle, to settle an old land dispute in Cameroon. Mubang brought Evelyn to the United States when she was barely 10 years old. Mubang, a naturalized US citizen, traveled on an American passport, but Evelyn used fraudulent documents to cross international borders. Evelyn thought she was coming to the U.S. to fulfill her childhood dream of attending an American school, but the reality was different from the life she imagined watching The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Instead of the idyllic life of hopping on a school bus every morning, learning English, and making new friends, Evelyn had been forced to care for Mubang’s young children around-the-clock and perform never-ending household chores. When she was allowed to rest, she slept on the floor. If her cleaning was not up to Mubang’s standards, Evelyn was beaten with an extension cord or locked up in a basement without food. Mubang’s son urinated on Evelyn regularly to humiliate her. When she tired of beating Evelyn, her captor scratched the girl. If ever there was a poster child for a trafficked minor, Evelyn is it.

Evelyn’s body testifies to the physical violence she had endured: she has scars and burns to remind her of the ordeal. A decade after she escaped, Evelyn still gets emotional recounting not just the scars on her body, but also the verbal abuse Mubang wielded as skillfully as the rod used to discipline Evelyn. However, the insults, the cruelty, and the violence did not squash Evelyn’s spirit. Throughout her ordeal Evelyn refused to give up. She persisted, day by day, with a defiantly hopeful outlook and a head held high.

When the opportunity arose, Evelyn escaped. She found help, first from a distant relative and then from the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS). In 2003, when Evelyn was nearing her 13th birthday, the U.S. federal government officially recognized Evelyn as a trafficked child. She was now eligible for federally funded assistance to victims of child trafficking—help was on its way. Evelyn is grateful to LIRS, to her foster “auntie”, and first and foremost to her pro bono attorney, Melanie Orhant. With Orhant’s expert legal assistance, Evelyn received a special visa for victims of trafficking (T-Visa) allowing her to stay in the country, be placed in foster care, and attend school. Throughout this lengthy process, Evelyn observed Orhant, at the time a managing attorney for the Break the Chain Campaign, helping other victims rebuild their lives in America. Melanie’s passion and dedication inspired Evelyn. During our first interview in 2006, Evelyn told me she wanted to be like Melanie: advocate on behalf of trafficked victims, participate in anti-trafficking activities, and lead support groups for survivors. Truth be told, I was a bit skeptical about her ability to accomplish her goals. Evelyn has proven me wrong; she has achieved her dream of becoming a self-described “activist against modern day slavery.” Evelyn speaks at events for Break the Chains Campaign and collaborates with Survivors of Slavery, a non-profit organization, which, ”supports survivors of modern slavery who want to lend their voice to the 21st century abolitionist movement.” Recently, Evelyn went on a retreat with a group of young women who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. She said that she drew strength from the retreat and hoped that sharing her story was helpful to the other women.

Evelyn’s strength manifests itself in many different ways. An excellent student in Cameroon with a strong yearning to learn new things, Evelyn was told over and over again that she was “dumb”, “dirty”, and “unworthy”, and that she would never amount to much. Though she struggled in high school in America, these insults did not prevent Evelyn from pursuing her dream of attending college. While her spoken English was passable, she was illiterate in English. Reading, writing, and solving math problems posed insurmountable challenges at times. Discouraged, she dropped out, but not for long. She enrolled in a GED program and after getting her diploma went on to earn an associate degree in social work from a local community college. With a new boost of confidence, she enrolled in an online BA program in homeland security at University of Maryland. She will graduate in May of 2015.

Strong and determined to succeed, Evelyn continues to show incredible resiliency in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, her life is not free of struggles. A few years ago a stranger in the street raped her at gunpoint. She thought that she would not be able to trust a man ever again. Yet a few years later she found a loving partner in Malcolm, the father of her son. Their son Molima, “My Heart”, as his father calls him, is the center of Evelyn and Malcolm’s lives. Evelyn and Malcolm are engaged to be married. They are hopeful for a good family life.

A few dark clouds still overshadow Evelyn’s happiness. For a long time, she could not understand why her mother sold her to a stranger. How could a mother give up her own flesh and blood? The inability to understand her mother’s actions weighted so heavily on Evelyn that she fell into depression. She thought that the only way she could shake off the feeling of despair would be to confront her mother. With the help of an older brother living in Europe, Evelyn saved money for an airline ticket and in 2012 went to Cameroon. Evelyn shared with me excerpts from the journal she kept while visiting her family in Cameroon.

She left her homeland a little girl of nine, taken across the ocean by a stranger, but returned on her own terms, a young woman of 27. Although bitter about her mother’s involvement in her trafficking, Evelyn was startled by her own joy and excitement at seeing her mom. Tears ran down both of their cheeks as they hugged for the first time in almost two decades. Evelyn’s mother would not let go of her daughter even when Evelyn’s siblings came to embrace her. Surrounded by family members, mother and daughter held each other for over an hour.

A few days after visiting her mom and then her dad, Evelyn finally met her maternal uncle, a man she used to call father. Burdened by the thought of being treated as chattel, Evelyn confronted her uncle. Looking him in the eye, Evelyn wanted to know what role he played in her trafficking. At first he said he merely arranged for Mubang to take Evelyn with her to the States, but later admitted that money changed hands. Fearing that other people in her hometown might treat their children like disposable goods, Evelyn spent a few days organizing meetings and speaking to parents, children, and civil society groups about child trafficking and its effects on young victims. Ever the activist, she hopes that these discussions will raise awareness about trafficking in children.

Today, Evelyn is not free of economic difficulties. Recently, she lost her job as a security guard. “It was one of those ‘he said, she said’ stories; my word against my co-worker’s word,” she told me. The company let her go. Unfortunately, Evelyn did not qualify for unemployment benefits. As a result her fiancé is now the sole breadwinner. An artist from Cameroon, Malcolm has to supplement rare artistic commissions with a job as a manual laborer. They try to economize as best as they can, but some days they go to bed hungry. Evelyn is ill-prepared to understand the intricacies of networking and job-hunting in America. She wishes that the programs providing assistance to survivors of trafficking focused less on mental health counseling and more on employment services.

As we finish up our lunch, Evelyn says she has faith that things will improve. I do not doubt that Evelyn will persevere. Afong is Evelyn’s middle name, given to her by her grandmother, and afong means strength in the language of Evelyn’s childhood.

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Low hanging fruit: Domestic minor sex trafficking v. foreign-born trafficked children

I have been conducting empirical research on child trafficking in the United States for over a decade. I began by “studying up”: looking at existing decision-makers, policies, and programs set up to prevent child trafficking, protect trafficked children, and prosecute perpetrators. Access to trafficked children and adolescents, guarded by their protectors almost as closely as by their traffickers, was impossible and research funds scarce; most of the money appropriated by the US Congress for anti-trafficking activities was spent on direct services to victims or information campaigns. Later on, as I gained trust of service providers, I was slowly able to meet a few survivors of child trafficking and begin “studying down”: examining the perspectives of survivors of child trafficking, analyzing the meaning they ascribe to their trafficking experiences, and identifying the matters that concern them as they rebuild their lives in America. In 2005, I received a grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and started interviewing survivors of child trafficking and their helpers in earnest. This research has served as a springboard for a book project on survivors of child trafficking.

At the time of my first foray into the field of child trafficking, the anti-trafficking efforts focused solely on foreign-born victims of child (and adult) trafficking. Under federal law, enshrined in the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), child victims of severe forms of human trafficking were defined as individuals under 18 years of age who have been induced to perform commercial sex acts or have been recruited, harbored, transported, provided, or obtained for labor or services through the use of “force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude.” While the TVPA of 2000 was silent on the issue of victims’ place of birth, the assumption was that the law was created to provide services and benefits to undocumented victims who otherwise might have been simply deported. It was presumed that U.S. citizens and other lawful residents already had access to the state and federal programs unavailable to their undocumented counterparts.

However, by late 2005, human rights and child advocates started expanding the category of trafficked children. Victims of child trafficking were no longer limited to foreign-born minors trafficked across international borders. “Advocates argued that there was a class of domestic trafficking victims: U.S. citizens and residents who travelled inside national borders as forced laborers—invariably young people and children used for sex.” As a result of these advocacy efforts, the TVPA was amended in 2008 to include domestic trafficking victims: U.S. citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs). This cohort is comprised mainly of persons whom we used to call commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). More recently, this phenomenon is referred to as “domestic minor sex trafficking” (DMST) and defined as “the commercial sexual abuse of children through buying, selling, or trading their sexual services.”

As a scholar of international migration I focus on mobility across international borders and therefore continue to study exclusively foreign-born trafficked children and adolescents. However, in this essay I want to examine how the rhetorical and policy shift to domestic youth in prostitution has affected the broader efforts to fight trafficking of foreign nationals, especially children and adolescents, both in the sex work and in other industries.

The number game

In the late 1990s, the high profile Cadena-Sosa and Paoletti-Lemus cases had American law enforcement on high alert for other human trafficking situations involving immigrants. “From the Northern Mariana Islands to Chicago, Bethesda, Maryland, New York, and other cities, investigators were discovering cases of migrants who had been forced or tricked into jobs that usually involved prostitution, although officials were finding instances of garment sweatshop labor as well.” These alarming news reports raised a fundamental question: What is the scope of human trafficking in the United States? How many of the trafficked victims are children and adolescents?

A study by Richard Estes and the late Neil Weiner on the commercial sexual exploitation of children is often quoted as the authoritative source of the number of minors trafficked into the United States. Indeed, in the early 2000s Estes and Weiner, citing field interviews, estimated that approximately 15,000 children were trafficked to the U.S. annually. They projected that at least half of these youngsters, about 8,500, fall prey to commercial sexual exploitation as part of their trafficking experience. Mia Spangenberg, who studied child trafficking in New York City for ECPAT-USA, put forth the same statistic in her report without questioning its reliability.

These estimates were predicated on the early figures cited in the now-infamous report International Trafficking in Women to the United States: A Contemporary Manifestation of Slavery and Organized Crime by Amy O’Neill Richard. A young analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the time, Richard mentioned in passing that estimates of the trafficking problem in the United States vary given differing definitions of what constitutes trafficking and that research was based on limited case studies. These caveats, however, did not stop her from quoting wide-ranging estimates that put the number of trafficked women and children at 700,000 to two million worldwide and at 45,000 to 50,000 people trafficked annually to the U.S. Thus, the number game had begun.

Richard’s report cited CIA figures that were later disputed. A front-page article in The Washington Post criticized the US Government’s alarming statements about “tidal waves” of trafficked persons entering the country as being based on methodologically flawed estimates. The same criticism about worldwide estimates promulgated by the US Department of State has been expressed in different fora by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the US Department of Justice, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which concluded that statistics provided by the J/TIP office were problematic because of “methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies.” “With few empirical studies available, imagination seems to have filled the gaps in our knowledge,” asserted Sheldon X. Zhang. According to Jay S. Albanese, “The estimates of trafficking, both in the U.S. and worldwide, are not based on actual counts, and the basis for the estimates is not reproducible, so they fluctuate in unexpected ways and cannot be relied on to assess the extent of trafficking.” Following these criticisms, the estimates were downgraded to 17,500 of victims (adults and children) trafficked annually into the United States.

More recently, an unpublished but widely circulated report prepared by Senator Tom Coburn’s office, aptly titled Blind Faith: How Congress is Failing Trafficking Victims, again took issue with flawed estimates of the scope of human trafficking and the exorbitant resources spent on anti-trafficking initiatives. In Lee County, Florida, for example, of 42 potential human trafficking cases referred to the Ant-Trafficking Task Force in 2008, none were confirmed as trafficking cases. During the previous three years, despite many investigations, there was not a single confirmed and certified trafficking case either and only a handful of pre-certified victims. Yet, at the same time Lee County received further $250,000 in federal funds for the Task Force and the Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) provided $260,000.00 to Catholic Charities for comprehensive victims’ services for 18 months (2008-2010). Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) funded victim awareness and services through its “Rescue and Restore” initiatives in the same area, often duplicating efforts with little communication and/or coordination with the task forces in the area. This is but one example of money spent without any results.

Academics invariably begin their discussions of the scope of human trafficking by emphasizing that the number of trafficked persons worldwide—including children—is indeed difficult to measure. Many scholars have discussed the challenges of estimating the scale of human trafficking and the production of reliable statistics, and have subsequently called for improved methodologies to describe the unobserved. These debates notwithstanding, the demand for numbers, any numbers, means “Organizations feel compelled to supply them, lending false precisions and spurious authority to many reports.” And so the number game continues.

The U.S. Federal Government sponsored several studies to improve identification strategies, but so far they have not yielded any significant increase in identified cases. With the Trafficked Victims Protection Act (TVPA) allowing for up to 5,000 special visas for trafficked persons to be issued every year, by the end of 2014, potentially as many as 70,000 individuals could have received T visas. Yet, since the TVPA of 2000 through end of June 2014, 2,906 foreign-born trafficked adults and 622 foreign-born children under the age of 18 have been certified eligible for federally funded services. The total number of identified victims is estimated at 7,700 individuals, including approximately 700 youngsters under the age of 18. Lower-then-expected numbers of identified trafficked persons and prosecuted cases are attributed to several factors: the often-repeated claims regarding the clandestine nature of the trafficking phenomenon; inadequate enforcement of the provisions of the TVPA and limited resources for anti-trafficking efforts; insufficient coordination among governmental agencies; law enforcement agencies with limited experience in dealing with the crime, which makes identification of human trafficking challenging; or the fact that the estimates far exceed the reality and gravity of the situation which, in the absence of reliable data, take on mythical proportions. The latter assertion is not popular at all with anti-trafficking activists who see the small numbers of identified victims as a tip of the iceberg, never the iceberg itself.

Domestic victims: Low-hanging fruit

Members of Congress have been asking where all the money allocated for anti-trafficking activities has gone and why more victims have not been found. The answers have not gone much beyond the explanations invoking the clandestine nature of human trafficking and the resulting difficulties in counting and identifying a hidden population. Despite these excuses, the scramble to produce trafficked persons continued.

The 2008 amendment to the TVPA suddenly opened a new opportunity to indicate the enormity of human trafficking in the United States and boost the number of trafficked children and adolescents to astronomical proportions. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) says that as many as 300,000 young Americans are victimized by some form of human trafficking each year. Various advocates, including the “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” ad campaign, picked up the DOJ statement and began to claim that between 100,000 and 300,000 children are “enslaved and sold for sex in the United States.” What the advocates are forgetting is that the projected numbers of domestic minor sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children are as muddled as the numbers put forth a decade ago about foreign-born victims of human trafficking. Using a respondent driven sampling (RDS), Curtis and colleagues attempted to estimate CSEC prevalence rates in New York City. Despite rigorous methodology, the researchers encountered only a handful of victims, again underscoring the gap between estimates of trafficking and the number of officially identified cases.

And yet, human trafficking, especially domestic minor sex trafficking, continues to draw extensive public attention despite lack of reliable data. The shift of focus on DMST has service providers working with foreign-born survivors of trafficking worried that nobody is looking for foreign-born victims. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline received reports of 9,298 unique cases of human trafficking across the United States in its first five years of operation: 60 percent of these cases involved US citizens. Seventy-three percent of the 1,488 victims who called the NHTRC between 2008 and 2012 were English speakers. Only eight percent of the victims of sex trafficking were foreign nationals; the rest were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

In a recent interview, Walter, a director of a large social service agency in Texas told me that his program is almost exclusively working with victims of domestic minor sex trafficking. “We used to call them the CSEC [Commercially Sexually Exploited Children] kids,” he said, “now they are trafficked victims.” “We no longer get any referrals of foreign-born victims,” he added. Margaret, a director of children’s services at a large agency serving trafficked children in the Mid-Atlantic indicated that in the last few years, foreign-born trafficked children and adolescents have been identified mainly among apprehended unaccompanied children and youth in detention centers. “While the unaccompanied minors need and deserve protection and assistance, identification efforts should not be limited to detention centers,” she added. At a recent meeting with representatives of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), I learned that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is also focusing mainly on domestic victims. This piece of news was astounding. Why would immigration authorities be interested in CSEC kids? They are U.S. citizens, and thus outside ICE’s mandate.

The only logical conclusion that can be reached is that it is easier to identify English-speaking, U.S. citizen youth engaged in survival sex or American teen sex workers than foreign-born youths in domestic servitude, exploitative labor, and forced into the sex industry. Whether or not my hypothesis—that it is easier to find domestic victims—is true, it is a fact that domestic victims currently garner the most attention from child advocates, anti-trafficking activists, researchers, and funders. At a conference organized by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in Washington, DC in May 2014, the number of grantees working with and studying domestic victims far outnumbered those interested in foreign-born victims. Among some 80+ participants only three were interested in foreign-born trafficked persons, and I was the only scholar studying foreign-born minors. When I attended similar conferences in early 2000s, 99 percent of the presenters focused on cross-border trafficking of foreign nationals.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not suggesting that domestic youth in forced prostitution are not worthy of advocacy, assistance, and research. I see the point made by some law enforcement representatives who underscore notable changes in the discourse on underage individuals engaged in the commercial sex trade. “Where once they may have been profiled by police as juvenile offenders, they are now, thanks to widespread US attention to human trafficking and the passage of federal and state anti-trafficking legislation, provisionally viewed by local and federal law enforcement agents as potential victims of domestic minor sex trafficking, replete with traumatic pasts and turbulent family histories that authorize state intervention.” However, I continue to question whether commercially sexually exploited minors need be subsumed under the human trafficking label or whether it would be actually more beneficial for this population to have its own label and system of advocacy and care. Was the system set up to protect and assist commercially sexually exploited children insufficient? Couldn’t advocates and those working with homeless youth and runaway adolescents lobby the government to increase funding for these populations? Couldn’t awareness campaigns be mounted to educate law enforcement and the public about the plight of the CSEC kids?

Competition for victimhood

As the anthropologist Denise Brennan wrote, “Although abuses within the sex industry—in particular for young people—are horrific and need attention, one kind of abuse and one kind of victimhood should not be privileged over others.” Indeed, the inclusion of domestic minor sex trafficking victims under the label of human trafficking has pitted U.S. citizen children and adolescents in forced prostitutions against foreign-born young people trafficked to the United States. More importantly, the shift to domestic minor sex trafficking in policy, programming, and funding has had an additional adverse effect: it continues to privilege sex trafficking over trafficking for other forms of labor.

“The dominant anti-trafficking discourse (…) is not evidence-based but grounded in the construction of a particular mythology of trafficking.” This mythology maintains that trafficking affects primarily women and girls. Although activism centered around sexual exploitation has been strongly contested and recent empirical research on human trafficking engages with different manifestations of trafficking for labor exploitation, cases involving women and girls continue to receive the lion’s share of media and research attention to the detriment of paying attention to the trafficking of men and boys. It is important to remember that originally the protocol addressing human trafficking was to be entitled “Trafficking in Women and Children,” omitting men entirely. Only later the phrase “especially women and children” was included. The Smuggling Protocol, on the other hand, “has no such coda and no specific emphasis on gender. Smuggled migrants are assumed to be men seeking work elsewhere without proper documentation, while trafficked persons are assumed to be duped victims, usually women.” This gendered distinction is rooted in stereotypes of women as victims and men as less vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. This ideology not only presents a distorted view of women, but also harms men. Trafficked men are invisible and exploitation of men and boys is not readily recognized and thus much more difficult to address.

Despite the emphasis on trafficking for sexual exploitation, the percentage of foreign-born minors trafficked to the United States for sex has been relatively small. Twenty nine percent of the 114 minors who received eligibility letters from the federal Anti-Trafficking in Persons (ATIP) program in FY 2013 were trafficked for sex. In the same year 68 percent were trafficked for labor and an additional three percent for both labor and sexual exploitation. In FY 2012, 25 percent of the 103 minors who received eligibility letters were trafficked for sex. The percentage was slightly higher in previous fiscal years. In FY 2011, it reached 36 percent; in FY 2010 it was 29 percent, and in FY 2009 38 percent. At the same time, 72 percent, 57 percent, 62 percent, and 56 percent of victims under the age of 18 were trafficked for labor exploitation in FY 2012, FY 2011, FY 2010, and FY 2009, respectively. Three, seven, nine, and six percent of minors were trafficked for both labor and sexual exploitation in these respective years.

The ratio of females to males among the trafficked minors has also changed over the years. Up until FY 2012, the majority of trafficked minors were always girls. In FY 2012, girls constituted 39 percent of the population. In FY 2013 the percentage of girls went up slightly, hovering around 42 percent. However, it was not near the 60 percent, or more, that it had been prior to FY 2012. This statistic alone demystifies the assumption that the majority of children trafficked to the United States are girls.

The gendered (as well as raced, classed, and sexualized) discourse on human trafficking stems from the current disconnect “between the broad legal definition that embraces any worker who experienced force, fraud, or coercion, and the narrow latitude of activist and policy discussions that focuses on sex work.” The centrality of women in the trafficking discourse “maintains the gendered divide around which earlier definitions of trafficking settled and thus reinforces the general, dominant image of trafficking as pertinent only to women’s and girls’ lives.” The concept of gendered inequality continues to guide research, “with situations of poor women and girls becoming the main concern of those involved with anti-trafficking work.”

And finally, the gendered dimension of human trafficking relates to broader issues of women and migration. Despite the continued feminization of migration—half of the world’s migrants are women —there remains a “bias that women and girls need constant male or state protection from harm, and therefore must not be allowed to exercise their right to movement or right to earn a living in a manner they choose.” “Some countries (e.g. Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal) have even prohibited women from migration because of the fear that they will end up in trouble.” This bias often conflates migration with trafficking and contributes to the notion that women and girls are the main victims of trafficking. Critics have argued that anti-trafficking measures have been used not necessarily to protect women from exploitation, but to police, punish, and racialize female migrants. The discourse on trafficked children parallels in many ways the discourse on trafficked women and assumes that “migrants can be neatly divided into moral categories such as adult (strong, active, agent) and child (weak, passive, victim), and smuggled (complicit in a crime against the state) and trafficked (victim of a crime against the person).” These binaries are woefully inadequate and harmful as they continue to question who is more deserving victim.

Concluding remarks

A serious examination of the growing trend to label different types of abuses and labor exploitations as “human trafficking” is warranted. Kempadoo has argued that exaggerated reports of trafficking are quite damaging because they divert “attention away from structural, underlying causes that give rise to exploitation, structural violence, and the coercion of (migrant and non-migrant) workers,” children and adults. In my view, extending the label of “trafficking” to encompass many different phenomena and different populations creates competing claims of victimhood and pities one group of exploited people against another. I contend that there is a need for more dialogue between members of the anti-trafficking movement and worker rights advocates, because much of trafficking in persons boils down to exploitation of different types of workers. Existing critiques, particularly evidence-based ones, of the shortcomings of anti-trafficking policies and victim assistance have to be taken onboard in order to go beyond the prostitution panic and reconcile the gender and age divide. The special needs of commercially sexually exploited citizen children and adolescents need to be addressed—and funded—separately from the experiences and needs of foreign-born children and adolescents who have experienced forced labor, domestic servitude, and were forced into the sex industry. Lumping these two populations together is not serving either group well.

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The Global Catch: Trafficking of Fishermen

Although trafficking continues to capture the imaginations of the global public, we rarely hear about trafficked men. Most of the international focus is on women and children; especially those trafficked for sexual exploitation. This week Twitter is especially busy with tweets about the upcoming Counter Child Trafficking Online Conference. Kevin Bales is personally inviting people to register for what is lauded to be the largest online anti-trafficking summit!

In the course of this field research many stakeholders mentioned trafficking as big problem in Malaysia, including rumors about immigration officials selling deportable asylum seekers to brokers who would place them in forced labor or indentured servitude situations.  However, when pressed to provide more concrete data or even estimates most service providers said they really did not know the scale of the phenomenon as all trafficked persons are housed in government-run shelters and are not assisted by civil society organizations.  Approximately 1,100 women and children are provided shelter in government run houses, the majority of whom are thought to be victims of human trafficking.

Having heard these kinds of reports, we started digging more systematically and finally encountered an organization, Tenaganita, which conducted a fact-finding mission to Tanjung Manis in Sarawak to investigate trafficking of 60 Cambodian fishermen. Some of the “fishermen” have been kidnapped (after being treated to one too many drinks), while others were recruited under false pretenses to work in construction but found themselves forced to work on Thai boats on high seas instead.  Tenaganita learned about them when a couple of the fishermen literally jumped ship and searched for help.  The organization found others in detention centers.  After jumping ship they were recruited to work on rubber plantations only to be deemed illegal migrants and locked up by immigration authorities.

Tenaganita believes that the 60 trafficked fishermen represent a proverbial tip of the iceberg. The Thai fishing industry is dependent on migrant workers, as Thai men are no longer willing to face the dangers of fishing on high seas. Many of the trafficked fishermen were in poor health, not only because they worked hard for two or three years without spending any time on dry land, but also because their diet consisted of fish only; as a result they had vitamin deficiencies and many ailments.

Fishermen who escape or enter Malaysia without documentation are arrested under Section 6(1) of the Immigration Act. The sentence carries affine of RM 10,000 (app. $3,300) or imprisonment of up to five years or both and a mandatory whipping of no more than six strokes of the ‘rotan’ (rattan canes). The question remains: How many more fisherman are working as forced laborers on trawler boats?

The 60 fishermen were lucky, because Tenaganita worked with a Cambodian NGO and the Cambodian Government who ultimately negotiated their release from the Malaysian detention center.


As one of the program staff remarked, perhaps before we enjoy the next seafood dish we should think where the prawns come from and who is catching them.


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Methodology: CBPR

CBPR or community-based participatory research has been much lauded by many anthropologists and other social scientists. This model pairs academic researchers and community members; both partners should have active roles in shaping the research’s design and implementation.

In theory, CBPR offers many benefits to academic researchers, the community involved in the research, and individuals in the community. Researchers may benefit from a better understanding of the community, allowing for better research design. The community can help shape research design and ensure that the actual needs of the community are taken into account. CBPR also provides practical advantages: it facilitates access to possible study participants; language barriers are minimized if not eliminated since community co-researchers are bilingual; a balance between emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspective is maintained.

I have used this approach in many of my research projects, often with terrific results, but never without challenges. In the current study of urban refugees in Kuala Lumpur we have hired several refugee research assistants representing the Chin, Iranian, Sri Lankan, and Somali refugee communities as well as the urban poor. They have been trained in research ethics and ethnographic interviewing. We have debated the use of oral consent forms, protection of human subjects, and confidentiality issues. Many of the RAs seemed to be natural ethnographers: friendly extroverts able to chat casually about many issues, easily developing rapport with their fellow co-researchers and us. Things were looking good!

A week has passed and we are yet to see notes from any interviews! Good training and careful selection do not seem to trump cultural attitudes towards deadlines.  Last night I have posted the following message on my Facebook: How do you motivate people to finish a task if they don’t have any sense of urgency? I received much advice: pay them (I am!), don’t pay them or at least threaten not to (would this be ethical?), provide more training (am considering); shame them on FB (not FB friends with any of them plus as one of my friends wrote: “Shaming never helped anyone to do a better job – value them for what they can do well and have a conversation about what else needs to be done”).

Stay tuned for reports on resolutions…. But never underestimate the difficulties related to CBPR!



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The plight of the Rohingya

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We spent Saturday afternoon in an apartment complex housing urban poor, including refugees and labor migrants. The 10-story building, eerily reminiscent of the 1970s socialist architecture in my native Poland, is badly in need of a fresh coat of paint. Despite the presence of a cleaning crew sorting recyclables from the adjoining dumpster, garbage was strewn all over and anorexic looking cats were prowling around in search of something to eat. Across the street was a posh, gated and freshly painted condominium. The contrast between these two buildings—sunny yellow with a white trim and nondescript gray with stains that are probably to gross to imagine–was stark!

We came to interview Noor (a pseudonym), a Rohingya community leader, and his Malay wife, Zara (also a pseudonym). Noor presides over an informal association of about 1,500 Rohingya refugees, which he runs from his apartment. Unlike other community leaders we met who focus on providing direct services to their members, Noor focuses mainly on working with the media and the international community to keep the plight of the Rohingyas in the spotlight!

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma, are one of the most persecuted communities in the world. Although, they have been living in the state of Arakan since the 8th century, the Rohingyas have been under extreme scrutiny by the Burmese government. They haven’t been recognized as citizens of The Union of Burma since the 1962 coup d’etat by General Ne Win. After decades of oppression and marginalization, the passing of the 1982 Citizenship Law deemed them officially stateless.

Human rights activist estimate that as many as 35,000 Rohingya fled Burma and neighboring Bangladesh by boat between June 2012 and May 2013, most of them hoping to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia. Locally, community leaders indicate that close to 28, 000 Rohingya are currently seeking political asylum status in Malaysia. Approximately, 13,500 Rohingyas have been registered with UNHCR and 14,500 have yet to be registered with UNHCR or with relevant organizations.

With the exception of the most vulnerable individuals—or cases as UNHCR refers to refugees!—the agency has not registered any new Rohingya since December 2005. Noor keeps a thick binder, in which he methodically records the names and contact information of members of his network documenting their presence in KL in the hopes that some day soon UNHCR might again focus on this group of stateless and unwanted people.

Similarly to other refugees, the Rohingya have very few rights in Malaysia. As a result, they are targeted by immigration authorities and Rela, a volunteer corps—akin to the American Minute Men–charged with arresting illegal migrants. In 2006, the Government of Malaysia began registering the Rohingya for IMM13 permits (or social visit passes), which would grant them temporary work status and thus some protection. Due to concerns by the government surrounding the registration process (accusations of corruption!), permit registration has since ended, and the Rohingya, like other Burmese refugees, continue to live without legal status.

Noor gets very agitated as he talks about the uncertain future of his fellow Rohingya and his own family. Although he is married to a Malay woman and has three citizen children—Malaysia being a Muslim country grants citizenship through the mother– his petition to become Malaysian citizen has been denied. Zara nudges Noor to show us the documentation he assembled to support his citizenship application. Noor produces another three-inches thick binder including every imaginable piece of paper the immigration authorities might need to make a decision. Everything, except a passport or travel document! Noor left Burma 22 years ago stateless in possession of no such documents!

His prospects for resettlement in the US are also bleak. Again, he gets very angry recalling that last year the United States resettled some 8,000 Burmese refugees from Malaysia; only three were Rohingya!

We wonder how Noor and Zara and their three small children—two boys ages six and four, and a four-months old baby girl—make ends meet. Zara used to work for a local NGO but with three children under the age of six, including a baby she breast feeds, she cannot afford to work eight hours a day. Her two sons are in a preschool, set up by a Malaysian NGO on the ground floor of the apartment complex, from 8 am till noon. Zara uses that time to help her brother who owns a small store. In exchange, he gives the family food and some money. Avie met the family some years back when they had only one child. They used to live in a much nicer apartment in a different neighborhood, recalls Zara. Looking around her current dwelling—very small, sparsely furnished but clean and well taken care of three rooms—she says: “We have no choice!” The good news is that the neighborhood is safe. The two boys are running around, playing with other kids in the narrow hallways and in the playground, all on their own.

Like many other Rohingya men, Noor has another wife and children in Burma. As a Muslim he is allowed to take a second wife provided he is able to support multiple wives and treat them equally. Noor has not seen his first wife in 22 years and he is certainly in no position to send remittances to his first family. It is his second wife’s family that support him!



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Syrians in Malaysia

The number of Syrian refugees is on the rise. Reports about Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries abound, but until today I was not aware that refugees from Syria are also arriving in Malaysia. The number of arrivals from Syria is not clear; UNHCR-Malaysia does not mention them on their website. And yet local NGOs are beginning to serve people fleeing the escalating conflict and violence in Syria.

Over the last three months about 60 families from Syria have registered at the Sahabat Support Centre (SSC), a project of the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI). One third of those families are Syrian, almost a third are Palestinian, and another third are Iraqis. Like all other of the roughly 100,000 refugees in Malaysia, they are not entitled to any support from UNHCR until their refugee status has been determined and recognized. Given the current backlog, service providers estimate that the newly arrived refugees might need to wait a year or two for their first instance interview, which is ironic since some of the Iraqis have been approved for resettlement by UNHCR-Damascus. We have learnt of one family who was to travel to the United States within a month. However, their dwellings in Damascus were bombed, they feared for they lives, and fled to Kuala Lumpur. They were told by UNHCR that they would have to begin the whole process anew!

The refugees and service providers are frustrated as they cannot understand why UNHCR-Malaysia does not honor decisions made by their colleagues in Damascus. The family in question brought with them all of their documentation, but somehow this was not enough…

A blog set up by Syrian expats in Malaysia suggests that refugees from Syria arrive daily in Kuala Lumpur. They can get a 90-day visa on arrival which provides a relatively easy access to the country. Islam is a dominant religion in Malaysia which is not without importance either….


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