BANGKOK, Thailand- Muhammad Ismail, a Rohingya refugee, vanished in no-man’s land between Thailand and Myanmar, one October afternoon. Thai immigration officials claimed that he was deported back to Myanmar, but in reality, he was sold to human traffickers.
It seemed so official at first,” said Ismail, 23. “They took our photographs. They took our fingerprints. And then once in the boats, about 20 minutes out at sea, we were told we had been sold.”
Thailand was secretly handing over Rohingya refugees to human traffickers in a clandestine policy to remove them from its overcrowded Immigration Detention Centers (IDC). A team of Reuters’ reporters investigating the disappearance of Rohingya refugees uncovered eyewitness accounts of this covert operation in a 2-month investigation that spread over three countries.
Ismail is among the thousands of Rohingya who fled Myanmar to escape persecution. Under the guise of deportation, Rohingya are secretly transported across southern Thailand and held hostage by human traffickers in camps hidden near the Thai-Malaysia border until relatives pay thousands of dollars to secure their release.
Bozor Mohamed said he underwent starvation and numerous beatings while being held captive in an illegal camp in Thailand. He telephoned his brother-in-law in Malaysia, pleading with him to pay the $2,000 ransom they demanded.
For other men who were unable to find a benefactor in Malaysia to pay their ransom, the camp became their home.
“They had long beards and their hair was so long, down to the middle of their backs, that they looked liked women,” said Mohamed.
Police Maj-Gen Chatchawal Suksomjit, Deputy Commissioner General of the Royal Thai Police, acknowledged that Thai officials may have profited from trafficking Rohingya in the past. He also verified the presence of illegal camps in southern Thailand, which he called “holding bays.”
Tarit Pengdith, chief of the Department of Special Investigation said: “We have heard about these camps in southern Thailand, but we are not investigating this issue.”
The U.S. State Department annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report, which observes global endeavors to combat modern slavery, has for the last four years placed Thailand on Tier 2 Watch List, just a notch above the worst offenders, such as North Korea. Unless Thailand makes “significant efforts” to reduce human trafficking, it would risk being demoted to Tier 3, which carries the threat of U.S. sanctions and the blocking of World Bank aid.
Reuters indicates the United States is unlikely to sanction Thailand, as she is one of its oldest treaty allies in Asia. However, the demotion would be a major source of embarrassment to Thailand, which is currently lobbying for a non-permanent position on the United Nations Security Council.
Rohingya are Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine (Arakan) State and are the poorest people in Southeast Asia’s poorest nation, formerly known as Burma. They have suffered intense persecution at the hands of the Burmese government since 1978, and as many as 200,000 fled to nearby Bangladesh.
Driven by a sense of desperation to escape the violence and persecution, Rohingya flee by sea. The UNHCR estimates 7,000 to 8,000 people escaped via the Bay of Bengal from Myanmar, during the sailing season from October 2011 to March 2012.
The most recent Rohingya exodus was sparked off by the sectarian violence in June 2012, between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Arakanese in the Rakhine State. The trigger point was when news circulated of an Arakan Buddhist woman raped and killed by three Rohingya Muslim men on May 28. Several days later, an angry mob of Arakan villagers killed 10 Muslims on board a bus, on June 3. The cycle of violence continued and displaced 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya. The Human Rights Watch estimates more than 35,000 Rohingya fled the country, during the sailing season between October 2012 and March 2013.
Stateless, Unwanted and Voiceless
The Rohingya population, approximately 800,000 to 1 million people, are stateless as they have been denied Burmese citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law, in which they were excluded from Burma’s official list of 135 ethnic groups. The Burmese government claims that the Rohingya are “migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.” But Bangladesh does not recognize the Rohingya and has refused to grant them refugee status since 1992.
In addition, the Burmese authorities have enforced a “system of pre-marriage government authorization” for Rohingya. Under this system, couples expect to pay bribes and wait for years before obtaining government permission to get married.
The Arakan authorities implemented the two-child rule that requires Rohingya couples declare in writing that they would only have two children. The two-child policy, which was imposed in 2005, was an attempt to regulate and control the Rohingya population. A breach of this regulation would subject the couple to hefty fines and even imprisonment.
Aung San Suu Kyi was perhaps the only political voice in Myanmar that opposed the two-child policy. However, when she highlighted that policy was in violation of international human rights, Arkanese members of her National League for Democracy party criticized her and called for the policy to be enforced.
In May 2013, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar called for the Burmese government to rescind the two-child regulation on the Rohingya.
The UN human rights expert emphasized that the discrimination against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state is “one of the underlying causes of the communal violence that erupted there last year, and is fuelling the spread of anti-Muslim violence across the nation.”
“Only by addressing this discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities can the Government of Myanmar hope to forge integrated communities that live together in equality, peace and harmony,” he said.
On July 12, Burmese President Thein Sein spelled out that the “only solution” to the sectarian violence was to banish the Rohingya either to other countries or to refugee camps run by the UN.
As officials debate over the Rohingya issue on the global scene, Thailand had its own set of problems to solve – 1,700 stateless Rohingya overcrowding its IDCs.
Birth of secret policy – “Option 2”
Thai government set a July deadline to deport 1,700 Rohingya refugees confined in the IDCs. The Thai government’s attempt to discuss with Myanmar on the issue did not accomplish anything as the Burmese government refused to take responsibility for the refugees. To the Burmese government, Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
As countless number of Rohingya continue to arrive on Thai shores, the UN made an urgent appeal for alternative housing. A proposed “mega camp” in Nakhon Sri Thammarat, another province in southern Thailand was scraped after objections from local people.
In early August, 270 Rohingya rioted at the IDC in Phang Nga. Within the last three weeks of August, more than 300 Rohingya had escaped from five detention centers.
By this time, Mohamed, the 21-year-old refugee, could no longer walk as his leg muscles had atrophied after months in detention in a cell shared with 95 other Rohingya men. Ismail and his friend, Ediris were transferred between several IDCs, before ending up in Nong Khai, a city on the side of Thai-Laos’ border.
Thailand was beginning to run out of options. A senior government official told Reuters that it could not raise objections to Myanmar to halt the flow of Rohingya refugees for fear of ruffling diplomatic relations and risk Thai investment interests in Myanmar’s emerging market. Nor could the Thai police put them into the already crowded prison for breaking Thai immigration law.
“There would be no room in our prison cells,” Police Maj-Gen Chatchawal said.
On September 13, Police Lt. Gen. Panu Kerdlarppol, Chief of the Immigration Bureau, met with several officials from various agencies on the tropical island of Koh Samui to resolve the Rohingya issue. Kerdlarppol finally announced that immigration officials would take statements from the Rohingya “to arrange their deportation,” for those who wanted to go back home. This was “option two” – Thailand’s secret policy to repatriate the refugees back to Myanmar, which led to Rohingya being sold to human traffickers.
In early October, 2,058 Rohingyas were detained in 14 IDCs, according to the Internal Security Operations Command, a national security agency operated by Thai military. One month later, NGOs and Muslim aid workers estimated only 600 Rohingya remained. By the first week of December, it was 154, according to Thailand’s immigration department.
Rohingya refugees began to vanish by large numbers, but few knew where they went.
In late October, Ismail and Ediris, along with hundreds of Rohingya were driven in Thai immigration trucks to Ranong IDC for processing and repatriation. They were photographed and told by Thai immigration officers they were being deported to Myanmar.
Ismail told Reuters: “They said no other countries were accepting Rohingya, and Myanmar had become peaceful.”
They were driven to the Ranong pier and shoved onto boats that had a three-man crew of Thais and Burmese. When they were at sea, the Rohingya asked the boat driver to help them. It was then they discovered they had been sold by Thai immigration officials for 11,000 baht ($350) each.
“They told us we now belonged to them,” said Ismail.
They landed at an island, separated from mainland by a slim river, and were sent to camps guarded by armed men. There was no water or food. Ismail was told he must pay 60,000 Thai baht ($1,850). His captors asked: “Did he have family who could send the money?”
“We need to escape,” Ismail whispered to Ediris.
Just before the crack of dawn, the duo ran bare-footed through the jungle and reached the mainland. They found a rubber plantation and met a Burmese man who agreed to bring them into Malaysia for 8,000 baht ($250) each.
Red line in the sea
Major General Chatchawal of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok referenced to the secret policy as “a natural way or option two.” He mentioned the Rohingya went willingly.
“Some Rohingya in our IDCs can’t stand being in limbo, so they ask to return to where they came from,” said Chatchawal. “This means going back to Myanmar.”
At the IDCs, Rohingya signed statements in the presence of a local Islamic leader, where they verified their desire to return to Myanmar. However, Reuters found that these statements were sometimes signed without a Rohingya language translator.
Chatchawal claimed that Thai officials may have taken money in exchange for Rohingya, but not anymore.
“In the past, and I stress in the past, there may have been cases of officials taking payments for handing over migrants to boats,” he said. “I am not ruling it out, but I don’t know of any specific cases recently.”
Chatchawal told Reuters it was likely the Rohingya were intercepted by brokers and hence, never made it to Myanmar.
“Once they’ve crossed that border, that red line in the sea, they are Myanmar’s responsibility,” he said.
The UN has since called for an investigation into the findings of the Reuters report.
“These allegations need to be investigated urgently,” UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan said in a statement.
– Flora Khoo