By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
RANONG Thailand (Reuters) - The smuggling of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar is so lucrative that Thai fishermen are converting their boats to carry humans, police, locals and officials in southern Thailand said.
In recent weeks, thousands of Rohingya, a mostly stateless people, have sailed across the Bay of Bengal to the west coast of Thailand, from where human-smugglers deliver them to neighboring Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country where they can find jobs.
Some boat operators in Ranong province, on the Thai-Myanmar border and with a thriving fishing industry, were adapting to profit from the exodus, said Sanya Prakobphol, chief of police in Kapoe district.
"The fishing business isn't so good so the fishermen make their boats people-carrying boats," Sanya told Reuters. "Some converted Ranong boats can carry up to 1,000 people."
Boat operators can earn between 5,000 and 10,000 baht ($150-300) per person by ferrying illegal migrants from Myanmar to Thailand, he added.
The Royal Thai Navy told Reuters last month that most smuggling and trafficking ships plying the Bay of Bengal were from Thailand. The navy also said it had increased patrols.
According to the Arakan Project, which plots migration across the Bay of Bengal, about 100,000 Rohingya have left Rakhine State since 2012. Violent clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists that year killed hundreds and left 140,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya.
Some Rohingya, as Reuters reported last year, are held for ransom by trafficking gangs at jungle camps in Thailand until relatives pay to secure their release.
SMUGGLERS GETTING RICH
Ranong's provincial capital, which goes by the same name, is a port city just 40 minutes by boat from Myanmar. Migrants have historically formed the backbone of its seafood industry.
Hanif, who uses only one name, said he had helped a fellow Ranong fisherman strip the interior of a boat to hold people.
"He is getting very rich," said Hanif, as he sorted shimmering piles of ribbon fish and mackerel. "He wanted to make as much room as possible to carry more in one trip."
Abdul Nazir, who earns about 6,000 baht a month repairing old fishing nets, added: "Fishermen around here are buying bigger boats. A few have been converted below deck to transport illegal migrants where fish and ice would normally be stored."
Many locals saw nothing wrong with transporting boat people, according to Manit Pianthong, chief of Takua Pa district in neighboring Phang Nga province.
"Villagers and fisherman have been living with migrants coming in and out of Thailand for more than 30 years because of our proximity to Myanmar," he said.
"They don't see anything wrong at all with supplementing their income by transporting illegal migrants. That's why we need to educate them slowly and show them that this is wrong and that some of those coming over now are trafficking victims."
He said he was waging an anti-trafficking campaign with roadside checkpoints and groups patrolling coastal areas.
Some boats were heading all the way to Myanmar to pick passengers up for the crossing, said Surachet Abdullah, a Rohingya rights activist and member of the Muslims For Peace group, a Thai charity.
"It's a service that comes right to the door. It's a really big business."
Thailand is the world's third-largest exporter of seafood. It is also one of the worst centers for human-trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department, which in June downgraded Thailand to its lowest ranking for "not making significant efforts" to tackle the crime.
(Editing by Andrew R.C. Marshall, Nick Macfie and Mike Collett-White)