Police and soldiers in southern Thailand have recovered more than 30 bodies from shallow graves in a remote jungle camp known have been used by human trafficking and smuggling gangs. The camp’s discovery comes as both Thailand and Malaysia step up efforts to halt the operations of the criminal gangs.
Some 200 army and police personnel recovered the bodies from the graves in a mountainous jungle camp near the Malaysian border. Authorities say most victims were believed to be Muslim Rohingya boat people from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
One man, a Bangladesh national, was found alive but extremely weakened from his ordeal after the camp had been abandoned by the smugglers.
The camp, on the border with Malaysia, is one of many used by gangs as a holding center before people are smuggled across the border.
Chris Lewa, a coordinator with the Arakan Project, which monitors the smuggling of people from western Myanmar and Bangladesh, says the deaths highlight the ongoing plight faced by boat people in the hands of the trafficking and smuggling gangs.
“This has been going on for a long time. When people cannot pay, they are held for months and months and some people become paralyzed with beriberi - they cannot move, they die mostly of illness, actually sometimes [get killed], if they have tried to escape but in general it’s because of the length of time they have to stay in those kind of conditions,” says Lewa.
Officials said a tip by a local policeman led them to the camp. Media images showed wooden thatch-framed buildings capable of holding up to 300 people. Lewa says most boat people are usually moved quickly, but those who cannot pay sums of around $2,000 are beaten.
“It’s only when they arrive in Thailand they are kept in the jungle and they have to pay the full payment which is around 60,000 baht ($1,800). Sometimes a little more but on average its 60,000 baht. People who get stuck have not paid and are beaten up quite severely as well because brokers think it is a way to pressure them - and pressure their family,” says Lewa.
Since 2012, more than 100,000 stateless Rohingya Muslims have made the perilous journey by boat, hoping to reach Malaysia and Indonesia to escape violence and poverty in Myanmar. Attacks on Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s Arakan State have increased in recent years, leading to tens of thousands being forced into refugee camps.
Thailand and Malaysia have come under increasing international pressure to curb the human trafficking and smuggling operations.
In Thailand, laws against smuggling gangs have been tightened, leading to several arrests of Thais linked to the trade. In Malaysia, authorities have arrested leaders of Rohingya smuggling gangs.
Lewa says as a result of the crackdown, trafficking gangs are holding people on boats at sea rather than using the jungle camps.
“I think between seven and eight thousand are stuck at sea. They are trapped on their boats - the boats serve now as the ‘camp’ but in international waters. It seems the last two weeks there is some delivery quietly - some have managed still to enter Thailand but some through Malaysia directly but not sent to the camps,” says Lewa.
In a recent report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated the smuggling of migrants in Asia generates up to $2 billion annually for criminal groups also linked to numerous deaths and human rights abuses. The UNODC said such gangs pose a “significant threat” to the region.
The UNODC has called for a strengthening of data and national laws and identifying smuggling networks as well as greater protection for the rights of migrants and victims.