Thailand's darkest secret surfaces

Thailand's darkest secret surfaces

THAILAND - One afternoon in October, in the watery no-man's land between Thailand and Myanmar, Muhammad Ismail vanished.

Thai immigration officials said he was being deported to Myanmar. In fact, they sold the 23-year-old, and hundreds of other Rohingya Muslims, to human traffickers, who then spirited them into brutal jungle camps.

As thousands of Rohingya flee Myanmar to escape religious persecution, a Reuters investigation has uncovered a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand's immigration detention centres and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.

The Rohingya are then transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in a series of camps hidden near the border with Malaysia, until relatives pay thousands of dollars to have them released. Reporters located three such camps - two based on the testimony of Rohingya held there, and a third by trekking to the site, heavily guarded, near a village called Baan Klong Tor.

Thousands of Rohingya have passed through this tropical gulag. An untold number have died there. Some have been murdered by camp guards or have perished from dehydration or disease, survivors said in interviews.

The Royal Thai Police acknowledged, for the first time, a covert policy called "option two" that relies on established human-smuggling networks to rid Thailand of Rohingya detainees.

Ismail was one of five Rohingya who said that Thai immigration officials had sold him outright or aided in their sale to human traffickers.

"It seemed so official at first," said Ismail, a wiry farmer with a long narrow face and tight curly hair.

"They took our photographs. They took our fingerprints. And then, once in the boats, about 20 minutes out at sea, we were told we had been sold."

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