Hundreds of Rohingya Muslims at Thai 'people smuggling' camp

Rohingya Muslims gathering at an immigration detention centre in Thailand's Kanchanaburi province during Ramadan.

BANGKOK - Thailand has detained more than 500 Muslim Rohingya refugees, including women and children, who were discovered in a raid on a suspected people-trafficking camp, police said on Monday.

Thousands of Rohingya, described by the United Nations as among the world's most persecuted minorities, have fled sectarian violence in western Myanmar in rickety boats since 2012, mostly believed to be heading for Malaysia.

Rights groups say they often fall into the hands of unscrupulous people-traffickers.

Thailand said last year that it was investigating allegations that some army officials in the kingdom were involved in the trafficking of Rohingya.

About 530 Rohingya, including one five-year-old, were found on Sunday at a rubber farm in southern Thailand near the border with Malaysia, Police Colonel Kan Tammakasem told AFP from Songkhla province.

"They were hungry and some of them are sick," he said, adding that the Rohingya had hoped to travel to Malaysia.

Three Thai men guarding the camp were arrested for sheltering illegal immigrants.

The Rohingya men have been taken to detention centres and the women and children to local shelters, according to Chatchawal Suksomjit, deputy commissioner general of the Royal Thai Police.

Rights groups have criticised the detention of hundreds of Rohingya in overcrowded and insanitary facilities in Thailand while the government waits - so far unsuccessfully - for a "third country" to offer to take them.

Myanmar views its population of roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship.

They face travel restrictions, forced labour and limited access to healthcare and education.

The United Nations last week called on Myanmar to investigate reports that dozens of men, women and children were killed in attacks on Rohingya with the alleged involvement of police in strife-torn Rakhine state.

Myanmar, whose sweeping political reforms have been overshadowed by religious bloodshed, has strongly denied civilians were killed in that incident.

Several outbreaks of inter-communal violence between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine since 2012 have left scores of people dead and about 140,000 people displaced, mainly from the Rohingya minority.

Rakhine has been left almost completely segregated on religious and communal grounds by the unrest, with many thousands of Muslims living in squalid camps nearly two years after being displaced.