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Police find graves of suspected trafficking victims

01 May 2015, 17:36

Hat Yai, Thailand — Police found dozens of shallow graves, a corpse and an ailing survivor Friday at an abandoned jungle camp in an area of southern Thailand that is regularly used to smuggle Rohingya Muslims, Bangladeshis and other migrants to third countries.

The grim discovery was a sharp reminder of the brutal human trafficking networks that operate in Thailand, a known transiting route for Rohingya, one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

Acting on a tip from villagers, Thai authorities sent teams of police and rescuers into the mountains of Padang Besar sub-district in southern Thailand's Songkhla province. Reaching the camp on foot, they found a shelter with at least one corpse, a man who was alive but very weak and what appeared to be several other bodies, police Col. Weerasant Tharnpiem said.

An Associated Press reporter who visited the scene later saw six bodies — five dug up from graves and another that had not been buried. He said a rescue team told him that 27 remaining graves had not yet been dug up. The graves had simple bamboo markers but no evident identification of the bodies.

Last June, the United States put Thailand in its lowest category — "Tier 3" — in its annual assessment of how governments around the world have performed in fighting human trafficking. The ranking took into account the smuggling of Rohingya, as well as cases of migrants from neighboring countries who are forced or defrauded into working against their will in the sex industry, commercial fishing, garment production, factories and domestic work.

President Barack Obama waived invoking action under the assessment that would have allowed him to impose sanctions on Thailand, including barring imports from its lucrative seafood industry. Thailand has promised action in order to get off the blacklist, but recent revelations by The Associated Press that Thai fishing vessels employed workers from Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia as virtual slaves have dented the country's reputation more.

The purpose of the camp discovered Friday — comprising small bamboo huts tucked away in the forest — was not immediately clear, but similar ones found in recent years have been used to detain migrants who in many cases paid traffickers for passage to what they thought would be a better life and jobs in Malaysia or points beyond.

Instead they were held while the traffickers extorted further money from their families for their release and found buyers for their human property.

National police spokesman Lt. Gen. Prawut Thawornsiri said in a telephone interview that he could only confirm the discovery of one corpse, one sick man and several graves at the site.

"We are sending a team of forensic police to investigate," Prawit said. "The next step is to verify their identities and nationalities. It's not clear yet who they are."

Local police said after the initial reports, they were ordered not to release any more information to the media.

Authorities said traffickers are widely known to use the Songkhla mountains and other nearby areas for temporary camps to house Rohingya asylum seekers and others before smuggling them to nearby Malaysia.

Rohingya Muslims have for decades fled persecution and state-sanctioned discrimination in neighboring Myanmar.

Attacks on the religious minority by Buddhist mobs in the last three years have sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people since the Vietnam War, with 100,000 men, women and children fleeing to third countries, said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a leading authority on the movements of the religious minority.

Their first stop is almost always Thailand, where up until recently most Rohingya have ended up in jungle camps while smugglers collected ransoms of around $2,000 from their families and friends so they could continue their journey onward.

Tactics have changed in the last six months, Lewa said, probably because of mounting pressure on Thai authorities by the U.S. and others to crack down on trafficking.

Now Rohingya are waiting on boats off the Thai coast and in international waters, she said, estimating their numbers at sea to currently be between 7,000 and 8,000.

Living in tight conditions while they wait for ransoms to be paid so they can disembark, with little room to move around and limited access to food and clean water, health conditions on the boats are steadily deteriorating, she said.

Lewa believes there are only around 800 people still in jungle camps. Conditions in the open-air pens, where they are vulnerable to rainy weather and get little food, are as grim as aboard the boats. When authorities raid the camps, the sick and weak are often left behind to die, survivors have told the AP.

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- AP


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