Amid Global Economic Crisis, an Upsurge in People Trafficking, Says Australia

NUSA DUA ~ Increasing numbers of jobseekers are being pushed into the hands of people traffickers as the economic downturn forces them to migrate in search of work, Australia said this week.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told a gathering on Wednesday of ministers and high-level officials from more than 60 countries, mostly in the Asia-Pacific region, that the patterns of illegal migration were changing and the region had to keep up.

He announced new Australian aid for the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, hundreds of whom were set adrift in unseaworthy boats by the Thai military after illegally landing on Thai territory late last year.

“The severe downturn in the world economy will push more migrants into the hands of people traffickers as they seek better lives abroad,” Smith said in a speech at the so-called Bali Process on people smuggling, people trafficking and related transnational crime.

Smith said the Rohingya people had been discussed at a breakfast meeting attended by a Myanmar “representative,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, among others.

The foreign ministers of Thailand and Bangladesh were also understood to have attended the talks.

Asked if Myanmar had indicated it was prepared to recognize the citizenship rights of the Bengali-speaking Muslim minority, Smith said that was a question for the Myanmar authorities.

An Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman said nations at the Bali Process meeting had agreed to set up an ad hoc “working group” that would discuss the Rohingya as part of broader talk on people smuggling and trafficking.

“We haven’t decided when the ad hoc committee will meet but the idea is to give them responsibility to come up with a framework to deal with the illegal movement of people,” Teuku Faizasyah said.

“Our working group will look at the overall policies for the region but certainly the Rohingya will be part of the discussions,” he said.

Hundreds of migrants from Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority were rescued in Indian and Indonesian waters between December and February after being abandoned at sea with few provisions by the Thai military.

Scores are feared to have died as they drifted in open wooden boats for weeks before being rescued.

Thailand denies violating their human rights but has admitted it towed the migrants out to sea.

The Rohingyas’ stateless status is one of the main reasons for their desperate attempts to illegally seek work abroad, according to the United Nations and rights groups.

Smith said Australia would provide AUS$3.2 million (US$2.3 million) in additional aid to the Rohingya people from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State to improve their living conditions and provide “better economic opportunities.”

Australia’s total aid for the Rohingya this financial year now stands at more than $8 million, he said.

“Their already parlous situation has been exacerbated by poor rice harvests, the rising price of basic food items and enforced restrictions on their movements,” Smith said.

Indonesia has made no decision about what to do with hundreds of Rohingya men still being processed on Sumatra island and has yet to determine whether they are economic migrants or asylum seekers, he said.

The migrants have told harrowing tales of persecution in Myanmar and of abuse by the Thai military after they illegally landed their boats on Thai territory.

The two-day conference in Nusa Dua was co-hosted by Indonesia and Australia, with Thailand in the steering group.

It is the third such meeting of the Bali Process, launched in 2002 to tackle the influx of illegal migrants into the region from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

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