Thailand's PM offers help in trafficking probe of Myanmar refugees

UN and US called for probe into media reports that Rohingya refugees held in secret camps

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 6:51am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 6:51am

Thailand will help the UN and the United States with any investigation into reports that Thai immigration officials moved Myanmar refugees into human-trafficking rings, the prime minister says.

The UN and the US had called on Friday for an investigation into reports by the South China Morning Post and Reuters, published on Thursday, that revealed a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thai immigration detention centres and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who chairs a government committee on human trafficking, declined to comment on the findings.

"I cannot comment on the Rohingya issue and reaction as this is the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry to handle," she said.

"The ministry will liaise with the United States and the UN to help with any investigation they need."

The Rohingya are stateless Muslims from Myanmar. Clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists exploded in Myanmar last year, making 140,000 people homeless, most of them Rohingya.

Since then, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled from Myanmar by boat and many arrive off southwest Thailand.

After being delivered to human traffickers at sea, the Rohingya are transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay ransoms to release them, according to the reports.

Some are reportedly beaten and some are killed.

"These allegations need to be investigated urgently," UN refugee agency spokeswoman Vivian Tan said.

The United States issued a similar call hours later.

"We are aware of reports alleging that Thai officials have been involved in selling Rohingya migrants to human traffickers," US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "We urge the Thai government to conduct a serious and transparent investigation into the matter."

A special correspondent for the South China Morning Post was led to a secret refugee camp deep in the Thai jungle, where an escapee said about 1,500 Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar were being hidden in appalling conditions.

The former detainee said at least 16 people had died and many women had been raped by fellow detainees during his two weeks in the camp.

Nearby villagers said four such camps were being operated near the village of Ban Chalung in Songkhla province.

New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch criticised Thailand for moving detainees into established smuggling and trafficking rings and warned the country could face a possible downgrade in a US list of the world's worst enforcers of human-trafficking laws.

Such a downgrade would place Thailand, a close US ally at risk of US sanctions and put it on par with North Korea and Iran among the worst performers in fighting human trafficking.

Thailand faces an automatic downgrade to the lowest rank, unless it makes "significant efforts" to improve its record in combating trafficking, the State Department says.