RANONG, THAILAND - The survivors of a horrific people-smuggling accident which left 54 dead were brought to a Thai court on charges of illegal entry Friday.
Fifty Myanmar adults are facing possible jail terms while 14 children will also be deported after the deadly trip across the Thai border in an airtight seafood container.
Fifty-four others died Thursday inside the container, measuring just six metres (20 feet) long by 2.2 metres wide, as they fled economic collapse in their home country in hope of finding work on the Thai resort island of Phuket.
The deaths shocked Thailand and sparked calls from human rights groups for tougher action against the human trafficking networks that smuggle desperate people into the kingdom in search of jobs.
But police in the southern province of Ranong, where the bodies were found, said they would prosecute 50 surviving adults. The 14 minors who were travelling with their families have been handed over to immigration authorities for repatriation.
Two other survivors remain in hospital where they are being treated for dehydration and lack of oxygen.
"We charged 50 of them with illegal entry. There are 14 others who are under 18 years of age. We have sent them directly to immigration for repatriation," Colonel Kraithong Chanthongbai, the local police commander told AFP.
"I hope the court will hand down sentences later today," he said.
The court could simply order their deportation, he said. But if the court fines the migrants and they are unable to pay, they could serve jail time, he added.
Police have issued a warrant for the 38-year-old driver of the truck hauling the container, which he abandoned on a roadside after finding his passengers had died.
The container carried 120 people trying to get from the border to Phuket. Police had earlier said 121 people were locked inside, but corrected their tally Friday.
The owner of the truck company has surrendered himself to police, but denied any involvement in the trafficking scheme, Kraithong said.
The Myanmar nationals had agreed to pay a Thai smuggling ring 5,000 baht (157 dollars) each for the journey from Ranong to Phuket.
But before they reached their final destination, 37 women and 17 men had suffocated to death in the stifling box with a broken ventilation system.
Survivors said they beat on the walls of the container to tell the driver that people were dying, but he told them to stop for fear of discovery by police.
When the truck driver finally realised some of the migrants had died, he parked by the side of the road, opened the door to the storage box and fled, Kraithong said.
The incident echoes a case in June 2000, when 58 Chinese immigrants were found suffocated to death in similar conditions in Dover, southeast England.
About 540,000 migrant workers are registered to work in Thailand, most of them from Myanmar, labour ministry figures show, but as many as one million undocumented workers are believed to be in the kingdom.
Myanmar is one of the world's poorest countries, its economy battered by decades of mismanagement under military rule and further hampered by Western sanctions imposed over the junta's human rights record. --AFP