Shelters for illegal immigrants may be set up: Thai PM

Southeast Asia struggles to handle a migrant crisis that has seen boatloads of persecuted Rohingya migrants and poor Bangladeshis arrive in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The government is considering setting up temporary shelters to house Rohingya and other illegal migrants pending their repatriation or resettlement, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said yesterday.

The issue is being discussed by government legal experts as many factors need to be considered, he said. "The proposed temporary shelters and their operations would have many consequences, including those affecting our national security."

The PM spoke after chairing yesterday's Cabinet meeting, which discussed the issue.

The authorities must take care of Thai people's welfare while protecting the rights of migrants who might be violated if they are in Thailand illegally, he explained.

The Rohingya trafficking issue will not be handled solely by Thailand. Discussion with neighbouring or relevant countries and international organisations are needed to decide jointly on what would be done. Otherwise, Thailand would be left to |shoulder the burden alone, while the number of migrants keeps rising, he said.

The Thai police are coordinating with Malaysian counterparts to hunt down a former Satun-based local politician accused of running the entire Rohingya trafficking, following rumours that he had fled the country, deputy police chief General Aek Angsananont said yesterday.

A seizure of assets worth around Bt10 million belonging to Pajjuban Angchotephan, an alias for Ko Tong, is also underway by the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO), he said. The board of AMLO's executives later decided to seize assets belonging to many other people suspected of running the Rohingya trafficking, totalling 189 items worth around Bt75 million.

An inspection of 19 unmarked graves on Ko Tong's personal island of Koh Raed Yai off Satun province is also underway. Satun governor Dejrat Simsiri, who took part in yesterday's inspection of the island, said later that the bodies in the graves were Thai, after their identities had been confirmed by relatives.

A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Tak issued a statement explaining that there were no longer any Rohingya in local shelters, dismissing reports that 98 Rohingya fighters fleeing from Myanmar troops had entered Thailand and sheltered in Mae Sot.

There were 282 Rohingya residing in three local shelters five years ago - but they had all been resettled in third countries, he said.

Raid on 15 locations

Police yesterday raided 15 locations in Satun and seized a number of assets including two cars and a handgun belonging to Pajjuban. Police also found three Mercedes vehicles, a 28-room hotel, and two boats. The AMLO is finding out whether they had all been bought lawfully by Pajjuban.

A senior police commander, Pol Maj-General Paween Phongsirin, said police were obtaining another warrant for a key suspect, in addition to 51 others, including Pajjuban, wanted under the warrants. He said police were focusing on protecting a number of witnesses and Rohingya victims who volunteered useful information leading to issuing the warrants.

Another senior investigator, Pol Mal-General Phutthichart Ekkachant, said seven detention camps were found, with 213 Rohingya and other migrants identified as illegal entrants - and another 63 victims of human trafficking.

He said 33 bodies found, 21 of them men and another 5 women. The sex of seven other bodies could not yet be identified.

DPA reported that more than 8,000 migrants were adrift off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, an IOM official said on Tuesday, posing a potential humanitarian crisis for the region's governments.

"Thailand has effectively stopped smuggling through its borders," said Jeffrey Labovitz, the International Organisation for Migration's chief of mission in Thailand.

"As a result we think that there are [more than 8,000] people stranded off-shore" in the region, mostly refugees and economic migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar, he said.

Rights groups say migrants are sometimes held indefinitely. Labovitz called for the Thai, Myanmar and Malaysian governments to find a solution to get them off the boats and provide assistance.

Economic migrants from Bangladesh and Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar often made their way through Thailand seeking opportunities in Malaysia and Indonesia. They are frequently targeted for exploitation by human traffickers.