BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai police found scores of sick and exhausted boat people hiding on a remote island on Monday, and all but one of the 79 suspected human-trafficking victims were from Bangladesh, according to local officials.
The discovery brings to more than 130 the number of people found since Saturday in the province of Phang Nga to the north of the famous resort island of Phuket, officials said.
The first group discovered in a rubber plantation in Takua Pa district on Saturday comprised 38 men from Bangladesh and 15 Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim minority from western Myanmar.
They have been moved to a shelter in neighboring Ranong province while their cases are investigated by Thai authorities ahead of possible repatriation.
The remainder were discovered on Monday, and of those 79, one was a Burmese national and the rest from Bangladesh. They are now in the local district office.
The high proportion of Bangladeshis cropping up on smuggling routes once plied mainly by Rohingya is consistent with what a leading Rohingya advocacy group says is an alarming rise in "forced departures" from Bangladesh.
"We are finding more and more cases like this," said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which plots migration across the Bay of Bengal. "A huge chain of people is involved."
She said the group had learned that brokers in Bangladesh were abducting men and boys, or luring them by false promises of work, then shipping them to Thailand and Malaysia.
There they are held in jungle camps or houses until relatives secure their release by paying the traffickers a ransom - usually several thousand dollars each.
Reuters has not spoken directly to the people found by Thai police over the last three days.
But according to an official who heads the group that interviewed them, some said they had been forced or tricked into boarding a boat for Thailand. Others may have left Bangladesh voluntarily in search of work overseas.
Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, minister responsible for the welfare of Bangladeshis overseas, said the government was aware of people being lured on to boats.
"We reach out to the homes of common people in remote areas through our local representatives, but they do believe these brokers," he told Reuters. "But the number of such incidents now is less than it was previously."
Reuters reported last year how thousands of Rohingya were held and sometimes tortured by traffickers at jungle camps in southern Thailand until their families secured their release with ransoms of $2,000 or more.
The discovery of the boat people, along with the detention of dozens more Rohingya last month, suggests that smuggling routes are still thriving in Thailand.
It has been downgraded to the lowest category in the U.S. State Department's annual ranking of the world's worst human-trafficking centers.
The State Department demoted Thailand to its "Tier 3" category less than a month after the military seized power in a May coup, toppling the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The army chief who led the coup, Prayuth Chan-ocha, quickly vowed to "prevent and suppress human trafficking," although rights groups said his words had not yet translated into action.
In August, Prayuth was elected prime minister by a national assembly packed with serving or retired military officers. Neighboring Malaysia was also downgraded in June to Tier 3, a level it shares with countries including North Korea and Syria.
Regional trafficking routes have been forged by misery, cruelty and market forces.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar's Rakhine State since 2012, when violent clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists killed hundreds and made about 140,000 homeless.
Most were Rohingya, who now often live in apartheid-like conditions with little or no access to jobs, schools or healthcare.
Some opt to leave with the help of brokers, who ferry them to smuggling boats moored off the coast of neighboring Bangladesh. Rohingya think the boats are heading for Malaysia, but they are waylaid in Thailand and held for ransom at camps.
The same route is now routinely plied by Bangladeshis leaving their homeland in search of jobs.
In January, two police raids in southern Thailand freed 636 people, about a third of them Bangladeshis - an "unprecedented" number, said police.
There are now so many boats and brokers vying for business in Bangladesh that some are resorting to abducting passengers to sell to traffickers in Thailand, the Arakan Project's Lewa said.
"There are always five to eight boats waiting in the Bay of Bengal. And the brokers are desperate to fill them."
The voyage across the Bay of Bengal to Thailand takes about five days, but many people were held for weeks before setting sail, with little food or water, while brokers found enough passengers, Lewa added.
The first group of 53 males was found on Saturday at a rubber plantation in Thailand's Phang Nga province. Police arrested two Thai men on suspicion of transporting them.
"Some were fooled into thinking they could find work, some were coerced, some were threatened," said Churin Kwanthong, head of the Phang Nga office of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, which interviewed the group.
Four members of a second group of 72 were hospitalized, said Manit Phianthong, district chief of Takua Pa, the area of Phang Nga where they were found. Some looked as if they had not eaten for days or bore signs of abuse, he said.
"They took off their shirts to show marks of being beaten and tied up," he said.
A separate group of seven men was discovered later on Monday in the same district, Manit added.
All three groups arrived in Thailand on a boat carrying about 200 people, said Manit. The authorities were scouring nearby islands for the remaining passengers, including women.
Additional reporting by Kaweewit Kaewjinda in BANGKOK and Serajul Quadir in DHAKA; Editing by Mike Collett-White