Malaysian involvement suspected in Thai smuggling ring: NGO

KUALA LUMPUR - A labour rights group said Thursday it has received reports of undocumented migrant workers going missing in Malaysia and called on authorities to investigate whether a deadly human-trafficking operation uncovered in neighbouring Thailand was reaching across the border.

The call by Malaysian NGO Tenaganita came as Thai authorities said six more bodies were found near a site along the two countries' borders where the remains of 26 migrants were found over the weekend in a mass grave.

Glorene Das, director of Tenaganita, said the group has over the past year received testimonies from illegal migrants and refugees about missing loved ones.

She said the testimonials indicated Malaysians were involved in human smuggling.

But she cautioned that Tenaganita had received no eyewitness accounts or proof to that effect, nor any firm information on whether Malaysia also is home to any camps where migrants are held against their will.

"When their family members are missing, or they have not written home, these people come to us to see if we can help them trace these family members," Das said.

"We know that its true that (Malaysians are involved in human smuggling)," she added, declining to give further information, citing the sensitivity of the situation and need to protect vulnerable refugees.

But Das called on Malaysia's government to "investigate who they are and to continue the investigations so that the people involved can be prosecuted."

The dead found in Thailand are believed to be migrants from Myanmar or Bangladesh, who for years have been smuggled in large numbers to Thailand, Malaysia and beyond.

On Monday, Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said there was "no evidence" of Malaysian involvement in the smuggling ring operating in Thailand.

But a day later, anti-trafficking group Freeland Foundation said an investigation conducted by police and NGOs in Thailand revealed traffickers were demanding around $3,000 (S$4,000) per migrant from family members in ransom, or selling them on for $1,000 each to work on Malaysian plantations.

Rights groups have long accused Thai authorities of turning a blind eye to - and even being complicit in - people-smuggling.

Malaysia's economy is a magnet for migrants from Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh, but reports abound of worker abuse and a lack of official protections.

Last September, a study by US-based fair-labour organisation Verite said nearly one-third of the 350,000 workers toiling in Malaysian electronics factories - particularly foreign migrants - were stuck in a spiral of indentured servitude akin to "modern slavery", unable to pay off excessive recruitment fees.

The government has denied the claim.