Fleeing Rohingya at the mercy of a smuggling network greased by graft

Members of the ethnic minority arriving from Myanmar and Bangladesh in hope of better lives enter a tangled human trafficking web in Thailand, where local officials, complicitous members of their own group and fixers make them pay dearly for their dreams

For desperate Rohingya arrested in Thai territory, hope for the future can rest simply with how much money they have to pay off local officials and human traffickers. The prospects are dire for those without the required cash _ being sold into slavery is commonplace.

CAST ADRIFT: On Jan 1, 73 Rohingya travelling by boat were detained at Koh Bon and taken to Phuket immigration office.

Muh, a 43-year-old Rohingya living in Bangkok for over a decade, has intimate knowledge of trafficking operations originating in either Bangladesh or Myanmar's Rakhine state, where stateless Rohingya have been subjected to violent persecution in recent months.

Before the raid on 400 Rohingya near the Thai-Malaysian border in Songkhla's Sadao district on Thursday, Muh, real name withheld, told Spectrum his connections had informed him that security officials were preparing to pounce on a ''safe house'' there.

He painted a complicated picture of the smuggling racket, involving complicitous Rohingya in both countries, corrupt Thai officials, fixers throughout the whole process and safe houses where the Rohingya are kept until they can be smuggled across the border.

While smugglers can demand up to 50,000 baht for passage to another country, costs can go up considerably for Rohingya detained on Thai soil.

Muh says in some cases Rohingya who are reportedly deported back to Myanmar are in fact taken to safe houses in southern Thailand.

The smuggling boats can carry 50-80 people per trip and the captain is usually fluent in Thai, Myanmar and Bengali.

''These people want to be arrested by Thai officials because it is part of the plan,'' Muh said. ''Once they are arrested, they go through the immigration process. The trafficker gets involved during the deportation process. This is the point when they have to pay another sum so that they can go to their preferred destinations. Those who can afford to continue their journey will get to go to Malaysia or Indonesia. But those who remain here will be sold to the fishing industry where they will be forced to work for 20 hours a day with no days off. I can't reveal where, but sometimes Rohingya are sold to fishing boats in the middle of the sea.''

STRANDED: Some of the 73 Rohingya detained at Koh Bon and taken to Phuket immigration office.

Surapong Kongchantuk from the Lawyers Council of Thailand chairs the human rights subcommittee on ethnic minorities, stateless people, migrant workers and displaced persons and has been documenting and working on cases involving smuggled Rohingya for over a decade.

In the past, the Rohingya had come to Thailand by themselves to escape poverty and persecution, but trafficking has become big business in the last four to five years.

''A Rohingya agent will go around and tell them about coming to Thailand and then going on to Malaysia for work for good pay,'' he said.

''The agents are Rohingya who either live in Thailand or Malaysia. Once people in the village see them having a good life in other countries, they want the same.''

Mr Surapong said the Rohingya coming from Myanmar pay 300,000-700,000 kyat (10,600-24,800 baht) to the smugglers and those from Bangladesh 20,000-28,000 taka (7,600-10,600 baht). The journey to Thailand usually takes two weeks by boat.

''They used to destroy the boat and run away, but now they surrender to police,'' Mr Surapong said. ''The trafficker takes care of them from that point on.''

''If they want to go to Malaysia, they will have to pay 1-1.5 million kyat or 50,000-80,000 taka. If they don't have the money up front, they can choose to have it deducted from their monthly salaries.''

Mr Surapong said according to interviews with Rohingya, some had their passage paid by relatives living in Thailand, but those who didn't have enough money were sold into slavery, sometimes, as Muh pointed out, in the middle of the sea.

Those who can afford the pay-offs are taken to the safe houses where additional payments determine how quickly they can be moved across the border. Sometimes relatives again come to the rescue; at other times the Rohingya are expected to work to pay off their debts.

''Safe houses are located in many locations, especially in Hat Yai district and Padang Besar district of Songkhla province and Sungai Kolok district of Narathiwat province,'' Mr Surapong said.

''All of the safe houses are located in the jungle where no one can easily see them. The safe houses are protected and taken care of by people in 'coloured uniforms'.''

TAKING RESPONSIBILITY

Department of Special Investigation anti-human trafficking centre chief Pol Maj Jatuporn Arunreukthawil said the involvement of Thailand-based Rohingya in the trafficking of their own people had become a concern.

''For the entire time I have been monitoring the issue, I have noticed the majority of Rohingya who came into Thailand are male. But lately, there are some females and children coming in,'' he said.

Pol Maj Jatuporn said by law it was an issue for immigration police to handle, not the military.

''I have heard of many suspicious things going on down South. I have all the information, but I can't reveal it because it will interrupt cases that we are working on at the moment.''

Mr Surapong said despite the best efforts of the Thai government to deal with the issue in a humane way, more and more Rohingya were coming. ''Part of it is because they are treated well once they arrive here,'' he said. ''They get food, water, gas and other things that they cannot get from Myanmar.''

Records detailing the number of Rohingya arrested or detained upon arrival in Thailand date back to 1998. That year, 104 were detained upon arrival after crossing overland into Tak province. That number climbed to 1,123 in 2006, 2,763 in 2007 and 4,880 the following year.

In 2009, the number of arrests dropped to 93 following international publicity about Thai officials pushing the Rohingya's boats out to sea. However, the following year that number rose dramatically to 2,350.

''These numbers reflect the number of people arrested; there are still many of them who were not on the record,'' Mr Surapong said.

The military's Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) is responsible for national security issues, including Rohingya who try to enter the country illegally. In 2008, Isoc set out guidelines in its Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) to handle the illegal immigrant problem along Thailand's borders.

Spectrum contacted Isoc Region 4 officials in Pattani and Ranong provinces, but both declined to comment on the Rohingya issue, and referred us to Isoc's main office in Bangkok. No one in Isoc's Bangkok office was available for comment.

ROHINGYA OR MYANMAR?

Another problem for Thai officials is whether to designate Rohingya as Myanmar nationals when they are deported.

On Jan 1, 73 Rohingya travelling by boat were detained at Koh Bon and taken to Phuket immigration office. They were designated as Myanmar nationals and deported across the border at Ranong the following day.

''The reason that we have to document them as Myanmar is because we are afraid that we won't be able to deport them at the border if we document them as Rohingya since they are are not recognised as citizens by the Myanmar government,'' said one immigration police officer.

Phuket Governor Maitri Inthusut, who claimed he has full authorisation to deal with illegal immigrants, said Rohingya were treated in a gentle, humanitarian way because of the difficult situation they were in.

''Basically, I just gave them what they needed,'' he said in reference to the Bon island group. ''They had travelled for almost two weeks. They had no food left by the time they arrived, so we offered them some. They said they wanted to travel further. We thought about giving them the petrol to continue their journey to Malaysia, but the sea was really rough on that day. Moreover, their boat was not in good enough condition for them to travel that far.

''Letting them continue would be the same as trying to kill them, so I ordered the officials to take them to land and follow the standard procedure. For this case, we had no choice but to deport them. I understand that they are seeking asylum, but we are not in the position to handle that.''

The governor said while it may appear to be a big national security issue involving human rights, Phuket had to consider its image as a tourist town.

''There is no way that we would keep a warship along the coast to guard our border, instead we are acting as a good housekeeper who keeps the whole town clean and organised,'' he said.

Nightmare without borders

After a week-long trek, Muh arrived in Thailand from Myanmar 13 years ago hoping his ordeal under the repressive state regime was finally over.

Originally from Rakhine state, Muh, who unlike many Rohingya come by boat, arrived on foot via the Mae Sot border in Tak province with two friends. A new chapter in his difficult life was about to begin. ''I ran away from my village and headed towards Yangon. The only safe place I could think of was Thailand,'' said 43-year-old Muh.

''Once we crossed the Thai border, we felt safe and didn't have any further plans of where we wanted to go. The only thing that scared us was being deported back to Myanmar, because I knew in my heart that we would end up back in prison.

''Our worst fears came true when we were arrested by Thai police in Tak province. We were sent to a prison that held many others from Myanmar. We were mixed in with them for a couple of day before three big trucks _ not police trucks _ took us somewhere we didn't recognise.

''There were 30 people on each truck. I was separated from my friends, and scared of where we'd end up. Then we arrived at a safe house where a man explained that if we didn't want to be deported back to Myanmar, we would have to pay them money. Then they would take us to work in Thailand.

''I ended up paying around 700 baht. It was a lot of money for me at the time _ I had almost nothing. Then they brought me to a buffalo farm in Tak province. I watched and fed the animals, and slept in a small shack. I got paid 200 to 300 baht a month with food and a place to sleep.

''After a while I ran away. I just took any bus and got off at Nakhon Sawan, where I found a family who helped me. I got a job as a construction worker before I went to Nakhon Ratchasima province. I saved some money and decided to come to Bangkok with a little help from my Rohingya friends.''

In Bangkok, Muh made a living selling roti on the street. Soon he was able to communicate in Thai fluently. His language abilities and connections make him an ideal interpreter when Rohingya arrive in Thailand through human traffickers.

Muh says he declines to get involved with traffickers who smuggle Rohingya to sell in the labour market, but he admits that such smugglers exist all over Thailand. He knows about much of the movements of Rohingya into Thailand.

''None of the Rohingya want to come to Thailand. Their main target is to make it to Malaysia or Indonesia. Thailand is just the passageway for them to get to their desired destination.

''When we see news of Rohingya coming to Thailand by boat, most are younger males. That's because the traffickers want to sell people for labour.

''Each of them contacts a local agent from Myanmar or Bangladesh. Then the Rohingya have to pay the agent to get them on a boat sailing to the Thai border. It usually takes 10 to 14 days, and they normally end up in Ranong, Phangnga or Phuket. It depends on where the agent wants them to be.''

Still the memories of the oppression his people face at home still hang heavily on Muh.

''The threat of being raped, robbed or killed were some of the worst nightmares we faced. Maybe that's why I don't know what a bad dream is because we faced it on a daily basis, every waking moment of our lives.

''The Rohingya are treated so unfairly. We have a long history of having roots in Myanmar, but we've never been included as part of the country. The military treats us as less than human. They can just come to our village and demand to take some women for their own pleasure. If we fight back, they'll hurt us. They're fully armed. So we have to trade our food, oil or money to save the women.

''So you can see why Rohingya want to escape from that nightmare and find a better place. They'll do anything to get away so they don't have to suffer.

''Some Rohingya travel by foot and sneak into Thailand across the border but most of them don't make it. Other popular options are to pay for someone to get them out of there or to sell themselves to a human trafficker.''

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About the author

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Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai
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