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The Winners and Losers of COVID-19 on Sea - Event Review

Lily Shield - Polyzoides, a 2nd-year History and Politics student at LSE, writes a review of our recent event on Maritime Crime in the Age of COVID-19 with Dr Asyura Salleh.



Drug kingpins, piracy and refugees were all on the agenda at the Grimshaw Club’s Expert Insights event in October with Dr. Asyura Salleh. Dr. Salleh is the Co-Founder of the Global Awareness & Impact Alliance (GAIA), Consultant for the Global Maritime Crime Programme at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Special Advisor on Maritime Security for the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Affairs (YCAPS).

Maritime crime often conjures up images of swashbucklers in the Caribbean. The reality is rather more sobering. Crime in the seas of South-East Asia consists of illegal migration (often refugees fleeing humanitarian crises), drug trafficking, illegal fishing, piracy and armed robbery. The ramifications are often life-changing for South-East Asian people and politics.

Our discussion looked at the features of these crimes but also, more pertinently, the question of the moment: what does Covid-19 mean for these crimes? The answer is that the pandemic has produced a set of winners and losers: drug traffickers that benefit from the panic and uncertainty, while refugees suffer unjustly.


The ‘winners’: drug traffickers and the ‘Sam Gor’ syndicate

As our discussion honed in on the drug trade, it clearly wasn’t just me who was fascinated by the idea of real kingpins, not just the ones we see on TV.


Tse Chi Lop - the leader of the Asian ‘Sam Gor’ syndicate, is in the ‘same league’ as El Chapo. His syndicate operates in Asia’s ‘Golden Triangle’, the notorious area for crime where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. The organisation rakes in between $8-17 billion a year from methamphetamine alone, stored on motherships. In 2019, Reuters found that the meth market in the region had expanded at least fourfold in the last five years. As a result, business for the syndicate had been accelerating at an unprecedented rate, even before Covid-19 hit the region.


As such, Covid-19 came at a time where the successes of the business were already luring vulnerable people into the trade, from workers to consumers. In May, a UNODC representative claimed that drug production and trafficking were continuing at ‘record levels’. Networks have quickly adapted, and traffickers changed their routes with marginal inconvenience. Much like the rest of the non-criminal business world, deals increasingly take place online rather in person, making police surveillance even more difficult.

The result is that the hard drug business has emerged as a winner from the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic. The same cannot be said for the refugees travelling on the Asian seas.


The ‘losers’: Refugees and ‘illegal migrants’

Humanitarian organizations have long been attempting to change the dialogue surrounding ‘illegal migration’. They want such migration to be recognised as a crisis in itself – not a maritime crime, in the same category as drug traffickers. A few attendees vocalised the same inclination (perhaps a comment on the humanitarian instincts of Grimshaw Club members?).

We discussed reports from Al Jazeera that showed testimonies from Rohingya children who had escaped Bangladeshi refugee camps, describing how they had been beaten, starved and forced to witness their parents being thrown overboard on the journey to Malaysia. Such a journey is a crime in Malaysia – one of the most popular destinations for refugees. The nation is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees; any attempted entry into the country without proper documentation is illegal, despite the humanitarian circumstances. Covid-19 has only worsened the situation. Malaysia began to enforce ‘Operation Benteng’ in May, a multi-agency task force to prevent cross-border infection. From its opening day to October 2020, more than 7,000 illegal migrants have been detained.

Convincing unsympathetic political leaders to accommodate the plight of refugees was already an uphill battle – now it is unprecedentedly difficult. Refugees are viewed with even more suspicion now they risk carrying the coronavirus. The pandemic has bolstered the case to detain and repatriate refugees – both for well-intentioned policymakers and those with ulterior motives.


Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, heading for Malaysia. [Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency via Aljazeera].

The future?


The response to the impact of Covid-19 on maritime crime falls into the hands of individuals like Dr. Asyura Salleh and the organizations she works for, such as the UNODC and the GAIA organization that she co-founded. It became clear toward the end of the discussion however, that these issues brought on by coronavirus - the creation of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ on sea - have no immediate or obvious solution.

Lawful citizens becoming drug dealers and addicts, discovering new routes for operations, create problems that will become systemic issues for future policy-makers. The battle to convince politicians that refugees should be treated as individuals to protect - and not as the drug traffickers they share the seas with - will be fought for the years to come. Currently, representatives from the UNODC are working on strengthening their relationships with authorities in the region. In November 2020, Thai officials and the UNODC met in Chang Rai to discuss trafficking in the Golden Triangle, in an attempt to share resources and intelligence. Such meetings are encouraging, but the battle to turn the tables, and lives, of the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of Covid-19 on sea, certainly remains an ongoing task.


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