Trapped by Traffickers: Fleeing Rohingya Held Captive on the Thai Border
By Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian,
Sunday, December 9, 2012
PHUKET: Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing and starvation in Burma are
driving a surge in business for people traffickers on the Thai border
The would-be refugees, who arrive by boat, are imprisoned in primitive
conditions until someone pays for their passage across the border into
Recently, the people smugglers' fees have risen to the equivalent of
50,000 baht or even 60,000 baht per person. Brokers have been chasing
''investors'' in a widening circle, even on Phuket or in Bangkok.
If the fee is not met, Rohingya are usually indentured to work on
fishing trawlers for up to 12 months to pay off their broker bond the
Virtually all authorities on both sides of the Thailand-Malaysia border
take a cut from the fee. The broker usually only pockets 10,000 baht per
person as profit.
A rapidly increasing number of Muslim-minority Rohingya are fleeing
Rakhine state, where so-called community violence since June has led to
at least 170 deaths and the torching of thousands of houses.
Dispossessed Rohingya are being penned in rough camps, where conditions
have shocked United Nations visitors and where many young children are
reported to be on the verge of starvation.
At least one boat a day now leaves the region, its passengers consisting
of men and teenage boys hoping for sanctuary and a fresh start in
The tacitly-sanctioned ethnic cleansing has brought a dramatic increase
in the number of departures. But the penning of the Rohinya in tens of
thousands in Burma means they have been unable to make even an
impoverished living for months.
So when the telephone call inevitably comes from a trafficker asking for
the fee to facilitate the final step of an illegal passage to
Malaysia, more families are these days unable to raise the money.
Hundreds of Rohingya are reported to spend time in captivity in the Thai
province of Satun, awaiting the chance to make a crossing to Malaysia
once the broker's fee is delivered.
However, with fewer people able to pay up, more Rohingya are believed to
be forced to work on trawlers in conditions that amount to slavery at
Survivors have told of being kept at work on the Andaman Ocean for as
long as 12 months without a break, with supply tenders replenishing food
and taking off loads of fish.
''People who arrive in Satun expecting to have to pay a fee are usually
only kept under armed guard for a night or two,'' an informed contact
''They then cross the border, either by boat or simply walking through
jungle trails, depending on where they are being kept prisoner. Most of
the traffickers operate from plantations.
''Once in Malaysia, the Rohingya will usually be picked up by car and
deposited at the door of relatives, whether in Kuala Lumpur or some
''But those who can't raise the entrance money have a problem.''
With increasing numbers taking to boats and with cash short among
Rakhine Rohingya, more teenagers and young men are thought to now be
forced into slavery at sea. Others become guards or act as agents for
As a result of the boom in supply and the lack of money, brokers have been hastening to clear the bottleneck.
''We have been contacted,'' a Rohingya source on Phuket told Phuketwan last week. ''We don't have any relatives involved.
''But the traffickers are determined to find the money any way they can to make room for the next boatload.''
In the past, non-Rohingya Muslim groups on Phuket have raised money to free young men who otherwise would have been sent to sea.
Although the system is iniquitous, Rohingya and NGOs accept it as better
than the alternative: a hopeless future for many in Rakhine state,
where the message of race-hate against the despised Rohingya is now
openly reinforced by officials at every level.
All the Asean countries bordering the Andaman Sea along with India are
part of a conspiracy to keep their sordid part in the Rohingya tragedy
Burma's neighbors no longer openly report the arrival of Rohingya.
At least seven boatloads are said to have arrived on the Malaysian
holiday island of Langkawi in recent weeks, with others likely to have
landed north and south of the Thai holiday island of Phuket.
Those who land far enough south of Phuket are reported to be transported to Satun and delivered to people smugglers.
Those who are captured north of Phuket are returned to Ranong, a port on
the border with Burma, where they too are transferred to traffickers.
As stateless people without citizenship and unwanted in Burma, the Rohingya are seldom transported back to Rakhine.
Most often, those apprehended in Thailand north of Phuket are recorded as ''Burmese'' to prevent alarming NGOs or the media.
The surge of Rohingya in the border bottleneck is expected to grow
between now and April when the monsoon season makes the perilous voyage -
which can be deadly at any time - too dangerous even for desperate