Thailand’s stunning Andaman Coast is the domain of five-star resorts, pearl-white beaches and sun-bronzed tourists, but it also hides a grim secret. Amid this tropical hedonism, thousands of refugees fleeing savage pogroms and sectarian violence in Burma have reportedly been sold into slavery with the collusion of local officials.
On Monday, New York City–based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the Thai government to protect the rights of Rohingya Muslims from western Burma (officially known as Myanmar), after several camps run by traffickers were revealed in the jungle a half-day’s boat ride from the tourist haven of Phuket. The camps held the Rohingya who were being kept for ransom, sold to fishing boats and farms as manual laborers, or taken on to their ultimate destination — the Muslim-majority Malaysia — for exorbitant sums.
“Reports allege that Thai immigration officials collaborated with the traffickers by transferring Rohingya held in Thailand to the custody of the traffickers,” HRW says.
Although the Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, they are not included on the Southeast Asian nation’s official list of 135 ethnic groups on the specious grounds that they are interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh (which equally disowns them). The Rohingya have been allowed to stand as parliamentary candidates in Burma and to vote, but they are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions on marriage, employment, travel and education. The U.N. has dubbed the community “virtually friendless.”
Since June 2012, racial bloodletting between the Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists has flared, with hundreds of homes torched. Currently, around 140,000 people, mainly the Rohingya, live in squalid camps by the Bangladesh border. Tens of thousands of other Rohingya make for Malaysia, risking a perilous journey on rickety boats and often passing Thailand on the way.
“They do not have any option but to depart,” says Shwe Maung, a Rohingya MP representing northern Arakan state’s Buthidaung township. He says that the journey is being made more dangerous by brokers who offer Rohingya refugees free transport to Thailand, but then sell the would-be asylum seekers upon arrival.
“Rohingya don’t have money to pay for their release,” he adds, “and so after suffering violence they then become commodities for human traffickers.”
Last year, 2,055 Rohingya migrants were permitted to enter Thailand but treated as “illegal migrants” and refused protection as refugees under international law. Bangkok has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and still does not have functioning asylum procedures. The country’s fetid immigration detention centers are severely overcrowded, and eight people died last year from health problems exacerbated by the dire conditions.
“Rohingya children need safe, secure environments after fleeing violence in Burma and enduring the trauma of difficult journeys,” said Alice Farmer, children’s-rights researcher at HRW. “Yet Thailand locks up many who reach its shores, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking and further abuse.”
Thailand’s obstinacy regarding humanitarian treaties stems from a desire to remain a transit country rather than a place of settlement, according to Alan Morison, editor of the Phuketwan news website, who has followed the plight of the Rohingya refugees for years. “Recognizing the status of refugees would make it very difficult to indulge in any of [the] covert operations, which are designed to keep the Rohingya moving past Thailand,” he says.
Morison’s investigations into the Rohingya-trafficking network — which found, among other things, that traffickers were paying Thai immigration officials around $300 for each Rohingya — led to a Dec. 16 lawsuit filed by the Royal Thai Navy. The charges of criminal defamation and computer crimes, issued against Morison and his Thai colleague Chutima Sidasathian, stem from a passage quoting a Reuters special report into the issue. Both journalists could face jail time if convicted.
“We’re finding it difficult to understand why the Royal Thai Navy is focusing on its reputation when the Rohingya problem is there to be fixed,” says Morison, who worked as Asia deputy editor for CNN.com from 2001 to 2002. A Reuters spokesperson told TIME on Tuesday: “We stand by our story. It was fair and balanced, and we have not been charged with criminal libel.”
On Dec. 7, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra declined to comment on the Rohingya issue, instead declaring the matter the “responsibility of the Foreign Ministry.” The U.N. and the U.S. State Department have called for an investigation into reports of Thai complicity in human trafficking.
“Since people are departing from Myanmar and arrive in Thailand, they become refugees according to U.N. mandate,” says Shwe Maung. “So the U.N. should take charge.” In the meantime, calmer seas mean that even more Rohingya are expected to attempt the treacherous journey in the weeks ahead. Nothing could gladden the traffickers more.