27 Jan 2013

Boat people being sold into slavery

8:31 am on 27 January 2013

Officials in Thailand have been selling boat people from Myanmar to human traffickers.

Ethnic clashes in western Myanmar have forced more than 100,000 Rohingya into camps. Many have fled across the Andaman Sea to Thailand. The boats are being intercepted by the navy and police.

But the BBC has found that deals are being made to sell the people onto traffickers who then transport them south towards Malaysia.

The Thai government says it's taking the accusations seriously and has promised to investigate.

The BBC has examined the fate of those on one particular boat which arrived on New Year's Day off the island of Phuket.

On 2 January, 73 Rohingya men, women and children were brought onshore, put in trucks and it was announced that they were being driven to the Thai/Burma border crossing at Ranong and deported.

But they did not get that far. When the trucks reached the town of Kuraburi, the Rohingya were transferred back into a boat and pushed back out to sea.

One of the brokers involved in the deal told the BBC that 1.5 million baht (about $US50,000, £31,500) had been transferred from Malaysia and paid to officials in Thailand.

The amount has been confirmed to us by other members of the Rohingya community in Thailand.

Status mixed

Malaysia has allowed the United Nations Refugee Agency to assess Rohingya claims for asylum. Thailand does not, reserving the right to determine for itself who it considers to be a refugee.

At the Thai foreign ministry. Permanent Secretary Sihasak Puangketkaew said an investigation was underway.

"We cannot at this moment conclude who these perpetrators are but the Thai government is determined to get to the bottom of the problem," he said.

The BBC reports there have been influxes of Rohingya before. In 2009 the Thai government was heavily criticised for a policy of towing boats back out to sea.

Those boats were almost exclusively male and the Thai government said they were economic migrants.

Now, for the first time, the boats crossing the Andaman Sea are a mix of men, women and children.