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People-Smuggling Is Big Business In Myanmar

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thousands of migrants remain trapped on boats in Southeast Asia Ottoman Sea. Many were abandoned by traffickers and their crews after a crack down on trafficking and Thailand left them nowhere to dock. For the past month, the time Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian governments have pushed back boats trying to reach shore in those countries. But under increased international pressure, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed this week to accept those at sea, but with conditions. First, the boats have to reach those countries, there's no guarantee they will. Conditions on board are deteriorating fast.

This boat was intercepted by the Thai navy last week. And when the navy provided food and water for those on board, fights broke out over who would get it. Reporter Michael Sullivan has been following this story from Thailand.

Remind us who these migrants are as human beings and what brings them in such large numbers.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Half are from Bangladesh, they are economic migrants fleeing poverty there. And the rest are ethnic Rohingya, fleeing persecution at the hands of the Buddhist majority in Myanmar's Rakhine state. They've been coming for years now. But the numbers, Scott, have risen sharply in those past couple of years since violence against the Rohingya has increased. Hundreds have been killed. Over a hundred thousand more are now living in displacement camps where the conditions are brutal. And that's why so many people have decided to leave in the past few years. And in the past couple of weeks, what I've noticed on these boats is there's a lot more women and children. Amy Smith is executive director of a human rights NGO called Fortify Rights, and she explains why.

AMY SMITH: The situation in the displacement camps have so deteriorated that they really have no option to stay there anymore. They're lacking basic humanitarian needs. If you get pregnant in one of those camps and need to deliver your baby, we've heard from women that they know that either they or the child will die. I've met a woman who basically told me that as soon as she found pregnant that she was pregnant, she got on the first boat that she could.

SIMON: Michael, who are the traffickers? Why haven't they been stopped?

SULLIVAN: 'Cause it's really big business, Scott. There's a lot of money to be made on the Myanmar side, on the Thai side, not just by the smugglers but by government officials involved too. And let's be clear, I mean, most of these migrants want to make the journey and they pay to do so, but once they get on the boats, they're pretty much at the mercy of these traffickers, and that's where things go sideways because when they get to these transit camps in southern Thailand, the traffickers will keep them there and extort money from their families back home in order to release them. And if they don't, they're beaten or sometimes killed or re-trafficked - sold to someone else - and the cycle starts over again.

SIMON: I wonder what you see over the horizon? There's a Regional Summit next week in Bangkok to try and figure out a solution. And Myanmar, after insisting it's not the source of people fleeing the country, now says that it's going to attend that conference.

SULLIVAN: Yes, this should be a very interesting meeting, Scott, because Myanmar said last week it wasn't going to come if the word Rohingya is used because they don't acknowledge that the Rohingya even exist. Myanmar's government calls them Bengalis, it calls them illegal immigrants. So at this meeting, the countries involved have agreed not to use the R-word, they're going to use the catchy phrase irregular migrants instead. In theory, at least, the countries are going to talk about what to do to stop this exodus. But you have to remember what we've see happen here in the last week is that Malaysians and the Indonesians have agreed to accept those refugees already on water for a year. But it's just a temporary arrangement. These two countries say they have to go elsewhere. The U.S. has agreed to take some, but what happens after a year? If no one else takes them are they sent back? We don't know the answer to that question yet, and we don't know if this exodus is really going to stop. Human rights groups say there's one clean way to get it to stop, and that's to get the Myanmar government to stop persecuting the Rohingya.

SIMON: Reporter Michael Sullivan in Thailand. Thanks so much for being with us.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.