1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

'Turning a blind eye'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezMay 6, 2015

More graves said to contain the remains of migrants have been discovered in a second jungle camp in southern Thailand, exposing the role the country plays in the regional human trafficking trade, Matthew Smith tells DW.

Thailand Massengrab Migranten
Image: Reuters/D. Sagolj

Five graves were uncovered on May 5 in a remote camp located just one kilometer away from a similar encampment close to the Malaysian border, where forensic teams found 26 bodies. On May 1, a joint military-police taskforce discovered the bodies at an abandoned human trafficking camp in the Sadao district of Songkhla province. According to Human Rights Watch, many were buried in shallow graves, while others were covered with blankets and clothes and left in the open.

Police reports indicate the dead are ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh who starved to death or died of disease while held by traffickers who were awaiting payment of ransoms before smuggling them into Malaysia. Traffickers controlling this camp apparently departed into the mountainous jungle, taking surviving Rohingya with them.

Following the discovery, police arrested three Thai officials and a Myanmar citizen believed to have links to the people smuggling network. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest rank in the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons report (TIP), putting it on the same level as Iran, Cuba, Zimbabwe and North Korea.

In a DW interview, Matthew Smith, executive at the rights group Fortify Rights, talks about how Rohingya end up being trafficked in Thailand, and the conditions they and other migrants have to endure in such camps. Smith also accuses Bangkok of only giving the impression of combating trafficking without taking responsibility for protecting these migrants.

DW: Why has Thailand become a hub for human trafficking?

Matthew Smith: The police forces of Myanmar and Bangladesh are driving Rohingya into the hands of traffickers, toward Thailand and Malaysia. An entire population feels their only option is to seek asylum by sea. It's difficult to pinpoint a precise figure of Rohingya trafficked in Thailand but it could be as high as a quarter million since 2012.

These human trafficking syndicates are transnational. They prey on the desperation of Rohingya fleeing systematic abuses and they are capitalizing on the willingness of authorities in Thailand to participate in the trade or at least turn a blind eye. Thailand's policy for years now has been to usher Rohingya onward to Malaysia, and authorities have worked closely with traffickers to do that.

What does the discovery of the mass grave reflect about the fate of Rohingya in Thailand?

Thailand Matthew Smith Menschenrechtsaktivist
Smith: 'The police forces of Myanmar and Bangladesh are driving Rohingya into the hands of traffickers'Image: Fortify Rights/V. Lenz

Rohingya lack protection everywhere they go, including Thailand. Traffickers in Thailand have been operating in camps that, in some cases, authorities knew existed, and in some cases knew precise locations.

It's been reported that Thai authorities have "rescued" some Rohingya survivors of trafficking. In reality, those rescued are very few in the greater scheme of things, and it's not altogether clear what happens to Rohingya who are brought into Thai custody. We know some have been deported back to Myanmar, where they are at great risk of severe abuses. Others end up back in the hands of traffickers. Many are subject to indefinite detention in Thailand.

Thai authorities tell us they don't like to use the word "detention" with regard to their treatment of Rohingya, but that's exactly what it is. We've visited these places and there is no doubt that detention is the appropriate term. These facilities are largely ill-equipped, and there have been reports of Rohingya dying in these facilities. Several hundred Rohingya are being held indefinitely right now.

How do Rohingya end up in such camps?

Their journey begins in Myanmar or Bangladesh. There are more than 650,000 Rohingya displaced in western Myanmar and Bangladesh combined, and upwards of one million in Myanmar living under intensely abusive conditions. This is a population ripe for human trafficking.

Most typically an onshore broker in Myanmar or Bangladesh deceives Rohingya to think they will be taken directly to Malaysia for the equivalent of $100 to $200. They board ships operated by transnational criminal syndicates, and they are packed in tightly, like cattle. Some people spend weeks at sea before the boat departs, waiting for an occupancy that far exceeds anything that would be considered humane.

Throughout the journey they're denied adequate food, water, and space, and subjected to severe beatings, and sometimes killings. The boats travel to Thai waters where the human cargo is transported to a makeshift jungle camp onshore, where again they're forced to live in cramped conditions.

In some cases, Thai authorities have intercepted these "shipments" and detained the Rohingya, only to later sell them to traffickers. We documented one such case that happened back in 2007, which demonstrates that this is not a new phenomenon.

Why do the authorities fail to provide appropriate protection?

The principal aim of Thai authorities has been to provide a corridor for Rohingya to get to Malaysia. They don't want to take responsibility for a new population of refugees so they turn a blind eye to the traffickers, or in some cases they see it as a lucrative economic opportunity and they participate directly in this modern day slave trade.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been made in the last two years alone. These economic incentives and a deeply flawed refugee policy work in tandem, against the rights of Rohingya.

How many of such human trafficking camps are there in Thailand?

We have reason to believe there have been an enormous number of camps over the last three years. The traffickers who operate these camps are most commonly Rohingya, Thai, Shan, Bangladeshi, or Malay. They torture their captives, sometimes on a daily basis, until they're able to raise money in exchange for "freedom" - passage to Malaysia where they tend to face more abuses. In the jungle camps they're kept in cramped conditions, and denied adequate food and water. These poor conditions are the most common cause of death in the camps.

How come Thai authorities often fail to detect and abolish these camps?

The main problem has been a lack of political will to really combat human trafficking in Thailand. Our research over the last two years indicates Thai officials knew the locations of many camps, or at least the general vicinity, and failed to act.

We recently suggested to Thai authorities that they use mobile phone frequencies to locate camps. Most of these camps are located in remote jungle areas with limited infrastructure, and there are hundreds of phone calls being placed from the camps by traffickers on a daily basis. In theory, this should make locations easily detectable, but acting on that would require political will, and up to now that's been absent.

For the last three years, certain Thai officials have simply wanted the traffickers to move all Rohingya to Malaysia in a timely fashion. If traffickers took too long to move Rohingya to Malaysia, Thai authorities would orchestrate a raid on a camp, but in almost all cases, the traffickers knew about the "raid" in advance and simply moved the camp to a new location or over the border into Malaysia.

Flüchtlinge in Thailand
'Throughout the journey they're denied adequate food, water, and space, and subjected to severe beatings, and sometimes killings'Image: AP

This way, Thailand has given the impression it is combating trafficking without having to take responsibility for protecting survivors. It's been a horrendous three years for the Rohingya. Officials continue to say that Thai government policies have only reflected the Rohingya desire to travel to Malaysia, but that's a cop-out. People have died or been killed in shocking numbers as a result of those policies.

What is the Thai government doing to protect the Rohingya?

Thailand still categorizes nearly all Rohingya as "illegal migrants" rather than recognizing their status as survivors of human trafficking, asylum seekers, or stateless persons. In effect, Thailand still denies Rohingya any protection under both Thai law and international law and subjects them to detention and informal deportation.

In many cases, "informal deportation" has meant that authorities have handed Rohingya asylum seekers to trafficking syndicates, who in turn tortured them. The indefinite detention of Rohingya asylum seekers needs to end.

We've heard a lot about recent arrests of human traffickers and government officials. That's a good sign, and we'd commend Thailand on that, but until it results in prosecutions and convictions, it doesn't mean much. In the past, traffickers have been arrested and then were quietly set free, only to resume their operations.

Thailand needs to get serious about investigating and bringing action against human traffickers. While there is increasing recognition of official involvement with the trafficking networks, Thai authorities need to do more to root out traffickers in their own ranks and take action against corrupt and complicit officials.

Matthew Smith is a founder and executive director of Fortify Rights and a 2014 Echoing Green Global Fellow. He previously worked with Human Rights Watch (2011-2013), where he authored several reports on critical rights issues in Myanmar and China.