BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai authorities said on Monday they had found a group of 76 migrants from neighboring Myanmar, including six suspected Rohingya, in a sign that one of Asia’s busiest smuggling routes is still thriving despite Bangkok’s vow to stamp out trafficking.
It follows the discovery in January of a group of 98 suspected Rohingya trafficking victims, including dozens of children, who were found in pickup trucks in southern Thailand.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar since 2012, when violent clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists killed hundreds. Many head to Malaysia but often end up in smuggling camps in southern Thailand where they are held captive until relatives pay the ransom to traffickers to release them.
The latest group were stopped at Tong Sung district in Thailand’s southern Nakhon Si Thammarat province. They were heading to Malaysia in search of work, Police Colonel Anuchon Chamat, deputy commander of Nakhon Si Thammarat Provincial Police, told Reuters.
“They were sitting with Thai passengers and upon inspection by authorities were found to have no travel documents,” said Anuchon, adding that police have yet to determine whether traffickers were among the group.
“It seems they wanted to go to Malaysia for work and had boarded the train at different locations along the route. It is difficult to say whether traffickers are among them.”
Thailand is ranked one of the world’s centers of human trafficking. It was downgraded to the lowest “Tier 3” status last June on the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report for not fully complying with minimum standards for its elimination.
Last week, Thailand’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to introduce harsher punishments for human traffickers, including life imprisonment and the death penalty in cases where their victims had died.
Thailand’s military government said in January it was “confident” it had met the minimum standards to improve its ranking in this year’s U.S. State Department ranking.
But a government report aimed at lifting Thailand from the list of the world’s worst offenders showed it had identified fewer victims of human trafficking last year than in 2013 and convicted fewer perpetrators.
Anuchon said the 76 migrants were being questioned by immigration police and would likely be charged with illegal entry.
Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Jeremy Laurence