Thai people smuggling crackdown creates fresh dangers

The two boys in the back of the Thai police pickup truck were terrified. Dressed in ragged clothes, they had been caught close to a remote people smugglers' camp in southern Thailand's jungles where authorities found the remains of 26 people in shallow graves on the weekend. "When the police raided the camp we ran away to another one nearby," the eldest boy, 15, from Sittwe in Myanmar, told reporters in Bengali before he was driven away. He and his younger friend, from Chittagong in Bangladesh, had finally been caught wandering on their own, just a 40-minute walk from the first camp where they had been held until people-smugglers abandoned it, leaving behind only bodies and a few sick survivors. Thailand's belated crackdown on human trafficking has created new dangers for desperate migrants as people smuggling gangs try to evade capture, leaving the weak to fend for themselves. Stung by a notorious reputation for being a regional hub, the ruling junta have begun hitting back against smugglers. Camps have been raided and traffickers arrested, including more than a dozen officials. But many fear that push risks further endangering already vulnerable migrants as smugglers play cat and mouse with the authorities in the jungles. Each year tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh flee persecution and poverty by making the dangerous sea crossing to southern Thailand, a well-worn trafficking route often on the way south to Malaysia and beyond. Until recently, activists say, they were held in secret camps on the Thai-Malaysia border until relatives paid exorbitant release fees. - Weak left behind - But the recent raids have sent ripples through the region as smugglers move their quarry into even more remote and precarious encampments, according to rights groups. Thai police believe the freshly uncovered settlement near Padang Besar in Songkhla province was vacated just two days before they arrived. Alongside those buried in the unmarked graves, the smugglers left two desperately thin survivors who are now in hospital, and a fresh corpse. The teenage boys were apparently able to escape on foot, but it is not known what happened to the others held there. "The raids have gone up in the last few months and the smugglers keep moving their camps, abandoning those who are too ill to leave with them," Chris Lewa of The Arakan Project, which monitors boat crossings and regularly interviews both survivors and smugglers, told AFP. In recent months traffickers have switched to keeping thousands of migrants on boats in international waters, rather than risk bringing them to Thailand. "There is a huge bottleneck at sea," Lewa said. "That is an even more dangerous situation." Abdul Aziz Kade-in, from the Young Muslim Association of Thailand which works with Rohingya in Songkhla, said smugglers and migrants are frantically looking for new routes. "Migrants will probably stop coming for a while or they might go in a different way such as by sea then go directly to Malaysia or Indonesia," he said. Rights groups have long accused the Thai authorities of turning a blind eye to trafficking -- with previous crackdowns doing little to dent the thriving trade. But the military rulers, who took over in a coup last May, insist they are serious this time and that any officials involved in trafficking will be punished "no matter who they are or which position they hold". - Business and image - Analysts say this recently discovered vigour is partially fuelled by economics. Last month the EU threatened to ban fish imports from Thailand unless it does more to stamp down on illegal practices, including the use of slave labour and trafficked persons on boats. The US has also dumped Thailand, which is faced with a stuttering economy, to the bottom of its list of countries failing to tackle modern-day slavery. "The military government cannot afford to have another economic blow. They therefore have to show to the international community that they are tackling this issue seriously now," said Puangthong Pawakapan from Chulalongkorn University. Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, believes the crackdown also has a cosmetic purpose. "As Thailand is now already tarnished for its coup-prone image, the notion that a junta can better crack down on human trafficking is something that nevertheless might diminish the warts from the junta's appearance," he told AFP. In Malaysia, those Rohingya who made it know their relatives are now caught between the whims of increasingly pressured people smugglers and the vagaries of Thai politics. And the recent discovery of mass graves has only created more alarm. "They are worried if their loved ones or friends are among the dead or if they are held in other camps," Saifullah Muhammad, a Rohingya activist in Kuala Lumpur, told AFP. "Or worse still," he added, "dead in another unknown grave." The two frightened teenagers in the back of the police truck have at least avoided such a fate. Many youngsters make the perilous journey, aiming to join families already in Malaysia, or travelling ahead to earn enough money to pay for more relatives to be smuggled out. But now an uncertain future in a detention camp for illegal immigrants, where conditions are harsh, awaits them.