BANGKOK - 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 neighbouring 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.
Officials in Bangladesh were not immediately available for comment.
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.
TRADE STILL THRIVING
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 US State Department's annual ranking of the world's worst human-trafficking centres.
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. Neighbouring Malaysia was also downgraded in June to Tier 3, a level it shares with countries including North Korea and Syria.