Wartime and incidences of genocide bring many horrors and crimes. Many of them are predictable and, in an age of instantaneous news, sadly routine — and met with global indifference. But beneath the surface of conflicts, new depths of savagery can often lurk. And when they are found, they make chilling reading.
Last month, Indian authorities opened an investigation into a scheme that they said was trafficking Rohingya girls on an industrial scale. Six men have been arrested over what India’s National Investigation Agency said was a “well-designed larger conspiracy to exploit the illegal migrants and also to destabilize the population ratio and demographic scenario of the country.”
This network is claimed to span multiple cities from the border with Bangladesh to Jammu in the country’s far north.
The NIA alleged that this trafficking operation took girls directly from refugee camps in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been trapped since 2017, when they were expelled from Myanmar by that country’s army in a campaign of genocide and forcible ethnic cleansing.
Ever since, the Rohingya have been confined and without economic opportunities, unable to return because of the state of war Myanmar has been in since then, while also denied the legal documents to allow them to return.
Indian authorities say that the Rohingyas were trafficked on faked passports and under false pretenses. They suffered what authorities called “various types of exploitation,” with underage girls sent to a client by Bapan Ahmed Choudhury — one of the ringleaders — eliciting a complaint, after which Choudhury is alleged to have sent other women to replace them.
These things are horrific, but they are not uncommon results of expulsion and genocide.
Refugees have few legal protections and little physical security. They are not watched closely for their own safety. In camps, they languish and, as reports indicate, Rohingya in India have been arrested while attempting to illegally travel to Bangladesh and vice versa.
Indian authorities say that the Rohingyas were trafficked on faked passports and under false pretenses.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
In such a restrictive atmosphere, and without economic opportunities, traffickers of all kinds prosper. They can claim to be able to move refugees from their camps to better lives — offering new identities, falsified documents and the legal right to work and live elsewhere — for a price.
But this practice is dark and the industry of trafficking piles illegality on illegality. People expecting new lives can be forced into slavery and indignity very quickly. They have no rights and no recourse if their traffickers turn out to have been lying to them about why they have been moved from one country to another.
It is a disgraceful state of affairs; a predictable consequence of genocide and expulsion, but one that countries are only partially motivated to prevent and punish.
The Indian authorities couch their arrests and prosecution of the alleged traffickers in the language of national security and economic integrity.
The NIA’s claim that traffickers were even partially interested in destabilizing the population ratio of India is strange and essentially beside the point. The refugee population throughout all of Bangladesh is no larger than a million. Even the most well-organized trafficking campaign cannot affect the demographics of a country of more than a billion people.
It is disheartening to see such nebulous reasoning appear in an investigation into the trafficking exploitation of underage refugee girls.
But it is also an opportunity for the world to once again be made aware of the position of the Rohingya in the camps in Bangladesh, where they are confined by the genocidal actions of the regime in Myanmar.
Their economic fortunes are not improving as time passes. Their desperation is not abating. For countries like India, even in the most self-interested of modes, it is now clearer than ever that justice must be sought and achieved if the Rohingya are to be able to quit this cycle of exploitation and again return to Myanmar.
While the Myanmar military retains power — and continues to pursue its genocidal and repressive policies with impunity — the refugees will remain in the purgatory of the camps, vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds.
This situation is an object lesson. While the sources of refugee movement remain, refugees will continue to suffer, both in their countries of origin and abroad. Only when that flow is stopped can India be remotely confident that networks of traffickers such as this one will be starved of new victims.
• Dr. Azeem Ibrahim