RATTAPHUM, Thailand (Reuters) - Thai authorities on Saturday questioned more than 100 migrants discovered in the country’s south to determine whether they were victims of human trafficking, as Thailand races to meet a deadline to uncover people smuggling camps within its borders.
Thirty-three bodies, believed to be migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, have been found in shallow graves over the past week in Songkhla province. Three suspected trafficking camps were also found.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced a 10-day deadline to crack down the illicit trade. On Friday, Prayuth called for a three-way meeting with neighbors Malaysia and Myanmar to try to resolve a regional human trafficking crisis following the discoveries.
The 117 migrants were found in Rattaphum district in Songkhla province, near the Malaysian border, said the province’s deputy governor.
Most of the group were from Bangladesh.
“There are 117 people here, 26 of them are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and the rest are from Bangladesh,” Ekarat Sisen, deputy governor of Songkhla Province, told Reuters.
“We need to figure out if any these people are trafficking victims or whether they entered country on their own. If they are victims of human trafficking we must hand them over to Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.
“Those who voluntarily entered the country illegally will be sent immigration police and eventually sent back to their country of origin.”
Police had said on Friday that 111 migrants were found.
Huddled in a meeting room in Rattaphum district, the 117 migrants, including three children, brushed their teeth, slept, prayed and ate, waiting to be interviewed, according to a Reuters reporter at the scene.
Some Thai villagers came to donate water, rice and fruit to the migrants.
Thirteen-year-old Busri Salam, from Bangladesh, said his group disembarked a boat in Thailand and trekked for two weeks in the Thai jungle to try and reach Malaysia.
“My brother is in Malaysia,” said Busri. “I wanted to go there.”
An estimated 25,000 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis boarded people-smugglers’ boats in the first three months of the year, double the number a year earlier, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday.
The migrants brave perilous journeys to escape religious and ethnic persecution and poverty.
Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Alex Richardson