After hearing her young nephew, Kemerchen, had survived the nightmare ride in an airless container truck that killed 54 Myanmese illegal immigrants earlier this month, Khun Mam drove hundreds of kilometres south from Bangkok to Ranong to see him. Talking in the busy port on the border of Myanmar, Khun Mam had in her handbag grisly photographic portraits of many of those who suffocated. Many parents and friends of the 121 people who were squeezed into the confined space on the truck had asked her to confirm whether their loved ones were alive or dead. The 53 adult survivors were due to be freed that week, having served their 10 days' punishment, some in the same prison as the five men now accused of being the 'snakehead' traffickers. But instead of freedom, what they received was another term of confinement. They were transferred to the Ranong Immigration detention centre, where the 14 children from the truck were already being held. On arrival, a Thai immigration official told them they would be 'victims and witnesses' in the trials of the accused. Khun Mam managed to speak to her nephew for a few moments before he was transferred with the others in a prison truck. Kemerchen handed his aunt his gold locket and said: 'I am OK. Tell my dad not to worry.' Another Myanmese, Wang, who lived in Ranong legally, was at the immigration department asking after her 70-year-old grandmother, who had been arrested the previous day. She had come from Myanmar to visit her grandchildren, but something was wrong with her paperwork. The grandmother was one of hundreds of Myanmese recently arrested all along the Andaman coast in regular police raids. Those captured are speedily deported or held, depending on their place of capture and ethnicity. Human rights advocates in Thailand say the tragic loss of life in the airless container disaster highlights the continuing life-or-death consequences of immigration roulette in Thailand. The Myanmese jammed inside the truck were entitled to live and work in Ranong. But rather than work seven days a week for minimal wages in a local shrimp plant, they were attempting to illegally travel south to earn better money on the holiday resort island of Phuket. Legal Myanmese residents such as Khun Mam lead a relatively contented and prosperous life in Thailand, in her case largely due to her marriage to a Thai 18 years ago. She has a Thai passport yet retains strong links to Myanmar. About 20 of the dead this month were from Merlameng, the village where Khun Mam grew up, not far from the former capital, Yangon. Kemerchen's sister works in a resort on Phuket, as he once did, but when he returned to Myanmar to serve briefly as a Buddhist monk, he sacrificed his legal status. Khun Mam's nephew and the other surviving 'victims and witnesses' looked well cared-for as they were loaded on to the truck for transportation. The women each carried a small plastic bag of belongings. But later at the facility, photographers were warned off as 90 less-fortunate illegals were forced to squat in the forecourt before being loaded on to two small trucks for their journey back over the border. Khun Mam later told of one 27-year-old divorced woman who died in the truck, leaving her ageing parents back in Myanmar to care for two young children, one aged nine and the other 18 months. The woman's father wanted to cross to Thailand to claim the 35,000 baht (HK$8,600) in compensation provided by the Thai government to relatives of each victim, but he feared extortion by officials on both sides of the border. There are handsome profits to be made by those involved in people trafficking. The container truck driver confessed to being paid 80,000 baht for the four-hour trip to Phuket, and the people who replaced the designated cargo of refrigerated shrimp handed over a total of more than 600,000 baht for the ride. Debate about the increasing flow of Myanmese into Thailand has intensified after the recent deaths. Critics in the Thai media say systemic bribery and graft on both sides of the border is the reason why even this horrific case will not be thoroughly investigated. The growing number of economic refugees has increased pressure on Phuket and other provinces to the south, with the booming construction sites of the holiday island being a popular destination for some fleeing Myanmar. Phuket's immigration superintendent, Police Colonel Chanatpol Yongbunjerd, said there had been almost as many arrests of illegal Myanmese workers in the first four months this year as in the whole of last year. His small holding cells, colloquially referred to as the 'monkey house', often house excessive numbers of illegal Myanmese in primitive conditions. One truckload of 40 illegals attempted to escape detection last week by wearing matching T-shirts, just as legitimate workers do on Phuket construction sites, and with Thai flags sewn on the sleeves. They were all carrying fake paperwork. Now a new type of immigrant from Myanmar, the Rohingya, is drawing the attention of the highest level of the Bangkok government. Thailand shares Myanmar's distaste for the Rohingya because they are Muslims, and the two countries work closely on the issue. The Thai government sees the illegal Rohingya immigrants as a threat to national security and wants them confined to an island off the coast to deter others from coming. Myanmar's military junta has been accused of ethnic cleansing by depriving the Rohingya of citizenship and driving them out of the country, mostly into Bangladesh. The search for a suitable exile detention centre has been under way for weeks. A Royal Thai Navy spokesman said the choice had narrowed to two islands, one of them in the Similans group, a marine sanctuary for turtles and a popular destination for dive tourists. Although opposition to the idea has been slow to build, the prospect of boatloads of holidaymakers sharing the seas with an island of imprisoned exiles being treated poorly to deter others grows more real every day. Thai officials in Ranong said the Rohingya had been sailing south since 2003, but were now coming in worryingly large numbers. Officials are perplexed because only young men seem to be involved. With national security a prime concern, one conclusion is that they might be heading for Thailand's troubled southernmost provinces, where separatist bombs and killings have been blamed on local Muslims. In the Andaman region, away from the deep south, Muslims and Buddhists have lived together peacefully for generations. The growing tide of Rohingya alarms local officials yet discrimination against them has the potential to anger local Muslims, too. In the neighbouring province of Phang Nga, between Ranong and Phuket, Governor Wichai Praisa-Ngob agrees the Rohingya need to be confined. But he wants the number of legal Myanmese workers increased beyond existing inadequate quotas to meet the labour needs of construction sites, plantations and factories. 'Only breadwinners should come, without families, and they should be taxed to lift the burden on Thailand's education and health care system,' he said. When Mr Wichai was interviewed recently, Phang Nga officials were holding 200 Rohingya in local lock-ups. These included one group of 80 who landed on an island north of Phuket and told officials there had been deaths on board during their 11-day voyage, with inadequate provisions, from their home state in northwest Myanmar. On Phuket, the need for more Myanmese labourers has accelerated because of the rising price of rice and panic buying. Rice shelves in many island stores are almost all empty. Many itinerant labourers who returned to their home provinces in northern Thailand for Thai New Year earlier this month stayed at home because supplies of rice up north are plentiful. So construction bosses on Phuket are now scouting for labour, and tacitly encouraging the illegal trade and the traffickers. Some sources say the demand has increased the rate of people trafficking. Many of the survivors of the ill-fated truck have relatives working either legally or illegally on Phuket, so the attraction remains strong. The container itself sits as impounded evidence in the yard of a police station along the route. Clothing is scattered across the metal floor where, as police photographs show, the bodies of the dead and dying were piled up. The survivors of the disaster remain in detention, awaiting a decision on their future.