BANGKOK - People-smugglers kidnapped dozens of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh after duping them with fake job offers, and trafficked them to a rubber plantation in southern Thailand, officials said Sunday.
The 53 men - mostly Rohingya refugees from Myanmar but also including Bangladeshi citizens - were found on Saturday on the plantation in Takua Pa district in the southern Thai coastal province of Phang Nga.
"Two Thai men have been charged with human trafficking," Nappadon Thiraprawat of Takua Pa police told AFP.
The group will be treated as victims of trafficking rather than as illegal immigrants, he added, after interviews revealed they had been kidnapped and put on a boat south.
A local official close to the case said most of the men were abducted around a week ago from a Bangladesh coastal area which is home to a large number of Rohingya Muslim refugees from neighbouring Myanmar.
Many thought they were being recruited for odd jobs in the area, only to end up on the boat heading south.
"Some of them were knocked out with anaesthetic and taken to the boat, some were tricked... but they did not intend to come to Thailand," the official told AFP, requesting anonymity.
The migrants were initially arrested as illegal immigrants and ferried onto the Thai mainland from a small island in the Andaman Sea, the district chief said on Saturday.
Thousands of Rohingya - a Muslim minority group not recognised as citizens in Myanmar - have fled deadly communal unrest in Myanmar's Rakhine state since 2012. Most have headed for mainly Muslim Malaysia.
Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya - described by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities - as illegal immigrats from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.
Around 300,000 Rohingya have over the years gone to live in Bangladesh, which recognises only a small portion as refugees and regularly turns back those trying to cross the border.
Most of the 53 were Rohingya from UN-run camps in the Bangladeshi coastal area of Cox's Bazar, according to Chutima Sidasathian of the Phuketwan news website who was present during interviews with the group.
"This is a new thing... before, we saw Rohingya displaced by violence who wanted to get to Malaysia, but this wasn't their plan - these people want to go back to the UNHCR camps," she said.
Rights groups say the stateless migrants often fall into the hands of people-traffickers.
They have also criticised Thailand in the past for pushing boatloads of Rohingya entering Thai waters back out to sea and holding migrants in overcrowded facilities.
Thailand said last year it was investigating allegations that some army officials in the kingdom were involved in the trafficking of Rohingya.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, described the abductions as a "horrifying new twist" to the already "systematic abuses of Rohingya boat people".