BANGKOK: Thailand’s junta chief Friday called for Malaysia and Myanmar’s help in stamping out the region’s thriving human trafficking trade as the UN warned migrant crossings in the Bay of Bengal have dramatically spiked.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha said he is seeking a three-way meeting with the neighboring countries before the end of May following the discovery of remains from dozens of migrants in southern Thailand.
In recent years tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, mainly from Myanmar but also more recently from Bangladesh, have braved the dangerous sea crossing to southern Thailand, with many headed for Malaysia and beyond.
The recent discovery of migrant graves and a network of secret jungle camps run by people smugglers in Thailand’s deep south has embarrassed the kingdom and highlighted its central role in a grim trade in which officials have long been accused of complicity.
“We are the middle country, what should we do?” Prayut told reporters.
“They (the migrants) have to pass Thailand on the way. But the third country doesn’t want to accept them (either),” he added.
Prayut, who took over in a coup nearly a year ago, suggested officials across the region were benefiting from the trade.
“There have been evil people as well as the authorities. But without the authorities joining in, it wouldn’t happen,” he said, adding corrupt officials should be “got rid of”.
His comments came as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said an estimated 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis have taken to boats in the first three months of this year — double the number over the same period in 2014.
“Based on survivor accounts, we estimate that 300 people died at sea in the first quarter of 2015 as a result of starvation, dehydration and abuse by boat crews,” the refugee agency said in a statement Friday.
The UN added that the most common route used by gangs was to ferry migrants by boat to Ranong province in southern Thailand and drive them by road to a network of hidden camps on the southern border with Malaysia.
“Conditions in the smugglers’ camp are horrific,” the statement read.
“Beatings are common and there are reports of rapes. Those who try to escape risk being shot.”
In Bangladesh police said on Friday three people-smugglers were gunned down by officers in a border region close to Myanmar.
Officials accused the men of smuggling thousands in recent years via networks that spread into Myanmar and Thailand.
On Thursday Malaysian labor rights group Tenaganita said interviews with survivors south of the Thai border indicated Malaysians were also involved in human smuggling and ran secret prison camps.
Authorities in Kuala Lumpur have yet to respond to the allegations.
The discovery of the skeleton filled graves at remote jungle camps on Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia were made during a recent crackdown that comes at a crucial time for the kingdom.
Last summer the US relegated Thailand to the bottom of its list of countries failing to tackle modern-day slavery.
The next State Department report on human trafficking is expected imminently and Thailand has lobbied Washington against its inclusion in the lowest tier, insisting it is now clamping down.
Around half a dozen people have been arrested in the last week on suspicion of running people smuggling rackets, including a Myanmar national known as “Anwar” who is accused of being a kingpin.
More than 50 police officers, including senior officials, have been transferred from their posts for complicity or turning a blind eye to the trade.
Meanwhile dozens of suspected migrants have been rounded up in southern Thailand, some of whom were abandoned by smugglers.
Police in Songkhla province Friday told AFP 65 Bangladeshis had been discovered near a rubber plantation in Rattaphum district trying to make their way to Malaysia.