Migrants desperate to escape violence and persecution and who want to seek a better life are being exploited by smugglers and traffickers.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime makes a distinction between human trafficking and migrant smuggling.
In reality, human trafficking and migrant smuggling often overlap, smuggling can be as exploitative as trafficking, and migrant workers (legal and otherwise) frequently are targeted by human traffickers.
The line between smuggling and trafficking has been obscured with the recent increase in global migrants as desperate people without legal avenues to migrate are being deceived, exploited, abandoned to die at sea and even held for ransom. This reality is reflected in recent news stories.
“Myanmar Intercepts Boat With 727 Migrants,” declared an Al-Jazeera report last Friday. These migrants were “believed to have been at sea since March and deserted by people smugglers,” the story noted, and “about 2,000 are believed to be still adrift.”
A Reuters’ headline read, “Asia’s people smugglers exploit rising migration, raise trafficking fears: U.N.” The story noted that “smuggled migrants are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and human trafficking.”
An Associated Press news story describes how would-be “saviors” sold lies to Bangladeshi migrants seeking a better life: a large boat, high-paying jobs in Malaysia, along with food, housing and education.
Instead, they were loaded onto crowded ships, spent weeks at sea, and none landed in Malaysia.
Some were left in Thailand and Burmese jungles, while others were moved from boat to boat before being returned to Bangladesh at which time ransom payments were demanded from their families for release.
Another Reuters’ story further highlights these blurred lines, reporting that the bodies of several hundred migrants – mostly Rohingya Muslims – were discovered along the Malaysia and Thailand border in human trafficking camps.
“Thousands of Rohingya Muslims are ferried by traffickers through southern Thailand each year, and in recent years it has been common for them to be held in remote camps along the rugged border with Malaysia until a ransom is paid for their freedom,” Reuters said.
Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority in Myanmar, are one of the most exploited groups currently.
Similar circumstances have been taking place in the Mediterranean for several years as smuggler-traffickers continue to abandon ships filled with hundreds of migrants fleeing violence in North Africa. As a result, more than 1,800 migrants have died in 2015.
Government action in responding to this humanitarian crisis has been largely anemic, sometimes counterproductive and lacking compassion.
Indonesia sent three warships and a plane to prevent boats overloaded with migrants from landing on their shores.
A more compassionate response has been found in Italy, which has been active in rescuing Mediterranean migrants stranded on overloaded boats abandoned by smugglers since 2013.
Under its Operation Mare Nostrum initiative, more than 150,000 migrants were rescued from October 2013 to October 2014.
The program, which cost an estimated $12 million per month, offered additional services, such as medical care, temporary housing, food and legal aid. Its focus was rescue and humanitarian aid.
However, in November 2014, the European Union shifted its emphasis from rescue to border control, implementing what has been labeled a fortress mentality under Operation Triton.
The program’s budget is one-third that of Operation Mare Nostrum with a limited number of rescue boats, and its focus is on “border control and surveillance,” according to reports.
Exacerbating the situation is anti-immigrant sentiment expressed in nations around the world.
Groups like Golden Dawn in Greece – whose party chief is on trial for attacking immigrants and opponents – the National Front in France, Pegida in Germany, and UKIP in the United Kingdom, along with xenophobic demonstrations in South Africa reveal a widespread anti-immigrant perspective.
The tenuous circumstances of migrants and refugees journeying to or living in foreign lands appear throughout the biblical witness, coupled with a consistent call to prioritize compassion toward these most vulnerable persons.
The faith community cannot dictate government policy or public sentiment, but it can be a vocal witness urging increased humanitarian aid, rejecting anti-immigrant rhetoric and condemning policies that prioritize restrictive border control policies over rescuing persons in life-threatening circumstances.
As Matthew 25 clearly, and hauntingly, proclaims: the manner in which we treat the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick and imprisoned – characteristics that describe migrants exploited by smuggler-traffickers – is the way we are treating Jesus.
The global community is, at the present, failing to respond with sufficient energy and compassion to these crises. The faith community must continue to offer a prophetic critique and public witness pointing toward a better path.