Beaten, imprisoned and sold into slavery - Channel 4 News reveals the fate of Burma's Muslim Rohingya refugees, who flee conflict only to end up in the clutches of brutal human traffickers.
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It seems like a lot of people in Thailand are frightened of Tarutao Island, writes Channel 4 News Asia Correspondent John Sparks.
When we asked locals whether they would take us there by boat, they were quick to say no – and that seemed very odd indeed.
It was strange, because Tarutao Island is an absolutely spectacular Thai national park.
Situated 30km from the mainland in the sparkly blue waters of the Andaman Sea, the mountains of Tarutao dominate the surrounding area. It is cloaked in a rich layer of jungle and its beaches are white and hotel-free. It’s the sort of isolated spot that many people dream of spending time on.
Except Tarutao Island is also the stuff of nightmares. It took us weeks to find out why people were so frightened, but in the end it made perfect sense.
Local people and senior police officers, speaking off the record, told us the southern section of this beautiful island is gangster territory – the hood of human traffickers, who run a number of secret prisons from the jungle floor.
It is here that desperate migrants from neighbouring Burma are incarcerated, beaten and extorted – and risk being sold as slave labour to fishing fleets.
Our story begins 2000 kilometres to the north however, a few miles off the shore of another island called St Martin’s. It straddles the border between Burma and Bangladesh and it is here that ocean-going ships anchor while awaiting their desperate human cargo.
The passengers are largely Rohingya – a Muslim minority now fleeing a vicious ethnic conflict in north-west Burma. Their situation is dire – civil rights group Human Rights Watch says they are victims of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
In fact, tens of thousands of Rohingya are now participating in a general exodus – an evacuation that is facilitated according to UN experts and NGO workers, by a sophisticated network of brokers, smugglers and human traffickers.
The numbers involved in this exodus are staggering – according to NGO Arakan Project, more than 35,000 have attempted to flee Burma in the last 12 months.
It constitutes the biggest movement of people by boat since the Vietnam War according to Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, who warns it may be just the beginning: “In the face of severe deprivation in Burma, the Rohingya have lost hope of staying in their homeland and it is not surprising that they are fleeing in droves. This is going to be a multi-year boat people crisis, and Burma's neighbouring governments are not ready for it."
Brokers and agents promise Rohingya passage to Malaysia – a country where they are generally permitted to stay. The would-be passengers are then gathered in secret locations near the Burmese or Bangladesh coast and hand over the equivalent of £200 for their journey.
When the ocean-going ships are ready, the brokers ferry them out in smaller boats, in a long-winded process that can take 3 or 4 days. Each passenger must wear a coloured wrist band, designating "ownership" by a particular group of traffickers.
Held in cages
The conditions on board these ships are brutal. The Channel 4 News team filmed several vessels used by human traffickers and we recorded interviews with those who travelled inside them.
You can see more in our exclusive report, but we were told that women and children are held in cages just below main deck - while the men squeeze into false decks like large wooden shelves, built into the hull.
One of our interviewees, a nineteen year old called Mohammad, spent 11 days in one of these vessels.
He told us: "We were kept on one of three or four floors in the hold – like wooden shelves. We had to squeeze in next to each other. We couldn’t move and we weren’t allowed to stand up."
Mohammad says he was one of 650 passengers on the boat – although Channel 4 News understands that some vessels set sail with well over 1,000 people on board. The situation inside was described by our interviewees as "intolerable".
It was so bad, said Mohammed, that one man decided to take his own life: "This old man crawled by me and said he felt terrible. I think he was depressed. He'd said he was going to the toilet but he jumped off the ship. They didn't go back to look for him."
Our interviewees then outlined another unpleasant surprise. They thought they were being taken to Malaysia, but the ships didn't sail that far.
Secret jungle prisons
Instead, the vessels stopped and disgorged their passengers in remote locations on the Thai coast. They were about to become prisoners in a number of secret jails - and there was only one way to earn their release - their relatives were required to pay a ransom of around £1,500.
The business model is crude and effective. After several days, the captives are told to call their loved ones in Malaysia or Thailand with mobile phones provided by the traffickers.
If friends and relatives are unwilling - or unable to pay, Rohingya are beaten – often with their relatives listening on the line. Rafeeq told us about his experience in floods of tears: "They lined us up and gave us the phone and told us to call them. They demand the money and beat us up. They beat us continually until they get the cash."
Mohammad said he witnessed beatings every single day he was held prisoner: "They hit people in a way that doesn’t make them bleed but injures them inside instead. After that, they give them pain killers to make them feel better because if a prisoner dies, the brokers can't get the money out of them."
Mohammed told us that prisoners who can't pay the ransom are sold as slave labour to Thai fishing boats. "The brokers also warn you about it," he said. "If your relatives don't have money, we'll sell you. That's what they say."
Both Mohammad and Rafeeq say there were held captive for weeks on Tarutao Island – but there was something that did not seem to make sense to us.
Tarutao is also a popular national park in Thailand, with rangers stationed on the island and a major shipping channel running past its western coastline – and that begged an important question. Could a criminal network moving hundreds, or possibly thousands, of Rohingya through the island really operate without the knowledge of the local authorities?
After several weeks, we found people who were willing to talk about what goes on there. The most revealing interview perhaps was with a man called Bo.
Police 'paid off'
He told us he was a member of a trafficking operation with personal responsibility for "security at Tarutao" - and he told me his group had paid off 10 police and military units in the last four months.
"It is like, when we give money to this group, the next group comes along, and it goes on and on. It never ends," he said, with evident frustration. Bo told me one way to avoid paying bribes was to move the Rohingya into different locations every ten days or so: "If the authorities can’t find them, they can’t ask."
I took this description of working practices at Tarutao Island to Somkuan Khampeera, the Police Major-General of regional Satun provincial police. He denied his officers take bribes. "I am strict – myself. That sort of thing doesn’t happen here."
However, he was frank when I asked whether he knew about the use of Taruato and other islands as hotbeds for trafficking. "I know, but we don’t have the resources we need to keep an eye on them all the time. The provincial police don’t have a boat for example."
There was one more person we wanted to speak to – the director of Tarutao National Park, Chaichana Wichaidit. Several days earlier, I had had the chance to question several park rangers about the underground prisons.
"Surely," I said, "you know what is going on". Their response surprised us. For the first time in the park’s history, one ranger told me, the southern half of the island had been made out-of-bounds both to the public and park staff. The director of the national park had even closed down two ranger stations located on the southern shore I was told.
Yet, in a long and at times tense conversation, Mr Wichaidit denied that any restrictions had been placed on the public or staff in terms of where they could visit.
"I don’t know where you get the information from," he told me. If park rangers had been prevented from entering the southern section of the park, then outside influences were to blame.
"Maybe people from outside came and threatened them. If you go there, you might see those people and this behaviour."
Well, it turned out the authorities did take a trip to Tarutao. As we conducted our investigation, marine police officers launched a raid on one of Tarutao’s southern bays and they uncovered several jungle prisons – with tents, topped in black plastic and a guard tower at a major entrance.
These camps were occupied by hundreds of Rohingya – with some Bangladeshis and a small number of Pakistanis as well. They told us they had been there for weeks and complained of being treated "like dogs".
Some told me they had been promised a ship to Australia - but that seems a fanciful prospect. A more likely scenario, said one senior officer, was the extortion of their relatives in order to secure their release from the island.
In the end, 176 people were plucked from the forest and they now find themselves ensconced in Thai detention centres. No country is prepared to take them - at least officially – so it seems they will languish there for months - or even years.
More Rohingya will follow however. The great exodus is well underway and there is money to be made from their misery.
25 June 2012