Migrants’ poverty and desperation supply fodder for modern-day slavery

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Delegates from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam attended the meeting as representatives of countries that are sources of illegal trafficking.

Bahrain, Italy, Kuwait, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates sent observers representing countries plagued by the illegal recruitment of slave labor.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, which also sent representatives, said, “Some 3 million Asian men and women migrate each year, a large proportion working in domestic service, construction, manufacturing and agriculture in other Asian countries and the Gulf states.”

Arab unrest threatened workers

In recent weeks, trafficked workers became increasingly vulnerable after the uprisings in Arab countries. Thousands of Asian migrants were stranded, unable to get paid or immediately escape from Tunisia to Yemen.

In Southeast Asia, governments also have failed to protect workers from abuse.

In 2009, Indonesia tried to stop its citizens from migrating to Malaysia to work as servants, cleaners and other domestic helpers because such workers frequently are abused.

Savvy traffickers and recruiters have responded by offering those jobs in relatively prosperous Malaysia to eager, impoverished Cambodians instead.

Thailand toughened immigration laws this year to deport illegal Myanmar workers and replace them with legal migrants from Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Employees and human rights groups, however, predicted that the plan would fail. They said the expense of flying workers from Bangladesh and Indonesia to Thailand would be less attractive than hiring Myanmar illegals who easily cross the porous Thai-Myanmar border on their own.

Thailand uses about 2 million low-skilled workers from Myanmar, and many of them are illegal immigrants.

Thai factories, construction sites, fishing businesses and domestic employers want more Myanmar people to be allowed to work in this rapidly modernizing country because of a labor shortage at the bottom rungs of the work force.

Ethnic minority abused

The most tragic cases of abuse in Southeast Asia’s labor market often involve ethnic Rohingya, usually Sunni Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh. Rohingya are said to be descendents of seventh-century Arab sailors.

Today, most of them languish amid disease and squalor on both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, but up to 2 million are suspected to be working illegally in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

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