5 May 2015

Trafficking death camp in Thailand may be tip of the iceberg

Four days ago a camp was found on the Thai-Malaysia border containing the graves of dozens of would-be migrants – and some believe there may be at least 60 more such camps.

On a jungle-clad hill near the Malaysian border, members of the Thai forensic service are digging up bodies. Working in oven-like temperatures, they have exhumed the remains of 26 people from a patch of ground pock-marked with 50 gravesites – and they know there are more hidden among the undergrowth. The police think that bodies have been deposited in another 3 or 4 areas.

They are victims of a human trafficking network which, until recently, made full use of a sizable camp located nearby. It was discovered four days ago (see image below) and has been described by police as a prison cum extortion centre where hundreds of Bangladeshis, Burmese Muslims known as Rohingya, and other migrants were detained until their relatives coughed up $3,000 or more. Upon payment, they were permitted to travel on to Malaysia and destinations further afield.

This spot on the hilltop was also a place of death. Two police witnesses, speaking to news agency Reuters, described routine beatings and acts of murder at the camp. A former inmate who helped lead police to the site, said prisoners were beaten while speaking to relatives on the phone as a means to extract money. Those who could not pay were often killed.


The witness, now being held under police protection, said he saw 17 people bludgeoned to death in the 10 months he was in the camp. “I saw four people beaten to death in the space of two hours,” he told Reuters.

While such testimony has shocked many here in Thailand, it will not surprise human rights activists, journalists and others who have long known of the existence of such camps. Channel 4 News discovered a human trafficking camp in a national park two years ago. What is startling, however, is the sheer number of people involved, as well as the willingness of Thai police officers – long accused of corruption – to drag the entire business out into the open.

When the authorities turned up at the border camp last week, the traffickers had vanished, taking an unknown number of prisoners into Malaysia, but one insider, an anti-trafficking activist called Adul Kalem, says 800 people may have been imprisoned there. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mr Kalam, a member of Burma’s persecuted Rohingya community. And he believes there are at least 60 additional camps dotted along the border.

If Mr Kalam is correct, Thai officials are going to have to face up to the fact that their country plays host – not to some sort of local criminal enterprise but to a veritable human trafficking industry. The sort of industry that is able to move thousands of people through difficult terrain, feed and keep them prisoner in any number of remote locations, and extract and process cash from their loved ones.

Of course, such an industry could not function without the cooperation of local people, including government officials and policemen, and for the first time investigators here seem ready to tackle their own. The Bangkok Post reported today that the man heading up the current inquiry, Police General Somyot, is ready to sign “transfer orders” for five high-level officers and the superintendent at the regional police station, accusing them of “close associations” with a prime suspect.

These transfers are an administrative device to get them out of the investigators’ way, and it raises the prospect, at least hypothetically, that they could be prosecuted. A handful of local government officials have also been charged with human trafficking and illegal detention.

Crucially, Police General Somyot has the country’s unelected leader General Prayut Chan-ocha on his side. Stung by a US State Department trafficking report which put Thailand in the lowest category alongside North Korea and Saudi Arabia, the Thai prime minister has ordered a crackdown, promising to apply “severe penalties” if state officials are involved.

That does not mean, however, that the human trafficking business is on its last legs. Here’s Phil Robertson, the Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch: “We have seen attempts to do something about this before, and then as now there were plenty of promises and the like, but it is difficult at this stage to ascertain whether the national government is really committed to take on powerful local interests  behind these trafficking syndicates .”

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