VDO: Thai vigilantes take up fight against human trafficking

With their bullet-proof vests, shotgun and sunglasses, the volunteers from Takua Pa district in Thailand’s Phang Nga province could be mistaken for a SWAT team.

In reality they are civilians frustrated by their government’s lacklustre efforts to combat human trafficking who have taken up arms to patrol one of Asia’s busiest smuggling routes.

A group of around a hundred villagers in the southern province have set up patrols to try to combat the human trafficking problem.

For three months now, volunteers have assembled to patrol the estuaries and jungles of region, a popular tourist destination 700 kilometres  from Bangkok.

They are motivated by humanitarian concerns, they say, but also worry that the presence of armed smugglers and impoverished refugees in the vicinity could lead to an increase in crime and scare away tourists.

Despite pledges by Thailand’s military junta to combat human trafficking, the volunteers say the influx of illegal migrants is growing, many of them Rohingya Muslims from western Burma, and little is being done to stop the gangs that transport and abuse them.

Every year, thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people arrive in Thailand, brought by the smugglers. They are then taken by road to desolate camps, where traffickers demand a ransom to smuggle them south across the border to Malaysia.

Last year Thailand was downgraded to the lowest tier on the U.S. State Department’s influential Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which annually ranks countries by their counter-trafficking efforts.

The volunteers’ main focus is to gather intelligence and confirm where the victims are being hidden, often in forest areas or at sea.

“Tip-offs are from people, fishermen. They will report to us what they see, such as how many people are being transferred. They will not have in-depth information. We will have to send a search team after the tip-off,” said Jessada Thattan, one of the volunteer team.

The volunteers are partly funded by Takua Pa district, but some costs, particularly gasoline, come from their own pockets.

In Baan Bang Yai, a checkpoint, which is run by a group of volunteers as well as local authorities, has been set up as one of the measures being used to help disrupt the networks.

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“We set up this group to block the transportation of illegal migrants to make it more difficult for them. For the past three months since we set up this team, the process of smuggling people in has changed to other tactics,” said Manit Pienthong, Head of Takua Pa district.

Instead of travelling by car or truck, Manit said the smugglers now enter through forested areas on foot instead.

Ranong, by the Andaman sea, is one of the major entry points for illegal migrant workers who arrive in Thailand by fishing boat. Most of them will be transferred to Malaysia.

Abdul Naser, a 51-year-old ethnic Rohingya who used to provide food and SHELTER for illegal migrants in Ranong and has subsequently helped with translation between detained migrants and authorities, says their numbers are falling.

“I think now there are less people (coming in) because they are strict. The authorities are now very strict,” said Abdul, a permanent resident in Thailand.

Volunteers said they had yet to catch any smugglers or traffickers. But they have discovered more than 220 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis over the past three months and handed them over to immigration police.

Additionally, more than 130 suspected trafficking victims, mostly Bangladeshis, were found dumped by traffickers in a remote coastal area of Phang Nga. Many of them had been abducted or tricked onto prison ships in the Bay of Bengal where conditions resembled the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Reuters reported in October.

The country is scrambling to clean up its act and has announced a slew of measures, including steep fines and satellite-based monitoring systems for large fishing boats, as it prepares to submit a report this month to the U.S. State Department hoping to show improvement.

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