An investigation by reporters from newswire Reuters has uncovered what they say is confirmation that illegal camps are maintained in the southern Thai jungle as holding centres for Rohingya boatpeople who are sold to human smuggling outfits that demand ransoms for release of the migrants or sell them on as bonded workers.
But in a break from mixed messages from Thai authorities in the past, the country’s second-highest ranking police officer, Maj-Gen Chatchawal Suksomjit, deputy commissioner general of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok, has gone on record with Reuters confirming that such “holding bays” exist and that Thai officials might have profited from Rohingya smuggling in the past.
Maj-Gen Chatchawal is also cited as saying that an unofficial policy exists in Thailand to deport Rohingya boatpeople to Burma.
The Reuters report suggests an organised international ring that preys on the Rohingya fleeing from northern Burma and Bangladesh to escape persecution.
Many Rohingyas leave on ill-equipped boats, negotiating dangerous high seas on the basis on promises made by brokers that they will be smuggled into Malaysia or Australia. Many of the boats are forced to land in Thailand where detention centres have been set up to shelter the refugees. However, Thursday’s report implies that a trafficking network often takes over from there.
“The Rohingya are then transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in a series of camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay thousands of dollars to release them. [Reuters] reporters located three such camps,” said the London-based agency in its 5 December report by by Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall.
The report detailed Rohingya sources saying they were beaten to make them scream while they telephoned home to beg family members to pay a ransom – in the region of US$2,000 – for their release.
Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights NGO, told DVB that her organisation had received many similar reports from Rohingyas about ransoms being demanded by traffickers in Malaysia.
“Mohammed, aged 20, a Rohingya farmer from Ba Da Nar village in Buthidaung, sailed on 22 August from Maungdaw on a big Thai trawler with another 400 aboard, and finally arrived in Malaysia on 19 September. He had to pay 100,000 kyat [over $100] before embarkation,” she said.
“Smaller Thai boats picked them up from the big boat at sea and brought them to pick-up vans waiting on the mainland. These vans took them to a place in a forested area not far from the Malaysian border. This was not exactly a camp – just an open place in the forest under the sky. They had to carry rice from the vans [and] had to sleep on the ground on used rice sacks, and attach plastic sheets between trees to protect themselves from the rain. They receive one meal every 2 days. There were guarded at all times. Women were kept separately [from the men]. They had to queue to use a mobile phone (held by brokers) to call family or friends to pay a ransom of 2 million kyat to be released and sent to Malaysia.
“Mohammed had no relatives in Malaysia. He called his father [in Burma]. His father had to sell his paddy land and his bullocks, mortgage the family house, even sell his monsoon crop in advance and borrow 200,000 kyat to make up the 2 million kyat, as the brokers would not bargain. Mohammed had to spend 22 days in the jungle place until his father finally paid. Each time he called his father he was beaten to make him scream so that his father would pay quickly.”
Reuters estimates that thousands of Rohingya have passed through these tropical gulags. “An untold number have died there. Some have been murdered by camp guards or have perished from dehydration or disease, survivors said in interviews,” the report said.
“What ultimately happens to Rohingya who can’t buy their freedom remains unclear. A Thai-based smuggler said some are sold to shipping companies and farms as manual laborers for 5,000 to 50,000 baht each, or $155 to $1,550.”
Chris Lewa told DVB that from 23 October to date [5 December], “we have recorded 15,000 boatpeople leaving from the north Arakan/Bangladesh border alone.” She noted that her group does not have data for Sittwe, Pauktaw and other possible exit points. “The vast of majority of these 15,000 are Rohingya, but also include some Bangladeshi migrants,” she said, adding that her group’s sources collected figures by counting boatloads, not from third party reports.
In June, Reuters journalists visited a Thai immigration detention centre (IDC) in Phang Nga in southern Thailand. They said there were 269 men and boys crammed into a space built for no more than 100. “It reeked of urine and sweat. Some detainees used crutches because their muscles had atrophied” they reported.
“A doctor who inspected Sadao’s IDC in July said he found five emaciated Rohingya clinging to life. Two died on their way to hospital, said the doctor, Anatachai Thaipratan, an advisor of the Thai Islamic Medical Association.”
Sources say that similar human trafficking operations have been active in the region for many years. In a recent interview with DVB near Jakarta, Saw Aung, a Muslim from Mon state, said he and his family were smuggled overland into Thailand no less than 17 years ago. He said they were kept in bondage for 10 years. They then spent six years in Malaysia before paying smugglers to take them to Australia, a trip which was aborted because of a storm; the ships turned back to Indonesia where they now wait in limbo.
Of the few boatpeople who make it all the way across the oceans to Australia, a warm welcome does not await. New Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently confirmed that his government would continue measures to prevent Rohingyas and other Asian boatpeople from landing on Australian shores. Australia is currently discussing these measures with their Indonesian counterparts.
Meanwhile, on 5 December, AFP reported that a group of asylum-seekers was found camped on a beach on Australia’s remote Christmas Island on Thursday, three days after their people-smuggling boat floundered at sea. The group of about 25 – nationality undisclosed – had apparently been living on a remote beach for three days surviving on coconuts and crabs until they were spotted by locals and reported to immigration authorities.