10 gangs in Rohingya people-smuggling racket, says Thai immigration official

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 January, 2014, 4:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 January, 2014, 4:11am

A Thai immigration official who raids jungle camps holding Rohingya boatpeople said yesterday that up to 10 gangs were involved in the large-scale people-smuggling operation.

Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot said raids on two camps since Sunday had yielded 700 Rohingya men, women and children. The raids in southern Thailand "will continue this week and next week", he said.

"The camps are simple structures with earthen floors and plastic sheeting overhead," Thatchai said. "There appear to be quite a few in operation because it's the safe sailing season between January and April."

He said the Rohingya - a Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar - would be fingerprinted, interviewed and deported "back where they came from". But no formal procedure for their repatriation exists, since Myanmar denies they are its citizens, rendering them stateless.

Rohingya interviewed by NGOs in Malaysia say Thai immigration officials instead take them to the northern border port of Ranong and load them onto boats, ending up back in the custody of people smugglers who send them south again.

"We are very serious about processing these groups," Thatchai said. He said he intended to invite the media and NGOs to visit the secret camps and witness the deportation process.

Thatchai said business was brisk. "The economy behind the smuggling of Burmese Muslims is huge. We have been applying pressure in villages," he said.

Thatchai said he did not know how many people smugglers had been arrested in the operation, which was triggered by a series of reports by the South China Morning Post and Reuters last month describing the existence of the camps.