Malaysia has found 139 graves, and signs of torture, in more than two dozen squalid human trafficking camps suspected to have been used by gangs smuggling migrants across the border with Thailand, the country’s police chief said.
The dense jungles of southern Thailand and northern Malaysia have been a major route for smugglers bringing people to Southeast Asia by boat from Burma — most of them Rohingya Muslims who say they are fleeing persecution — and Bangladesh.
“It’s a very sad scene... To us even one is serious and we have found 139,” Malaysia’s inspector general of police, Khalid Abu Bakar, told media in the northern state of Perlis. “We are working closely with our counterparts in Thailand. We will find the people who did this.”
The grisly find follows the discovery of similar shallow graves on the Thai side of the border earlier this month, which helped trigger a regional crisis. After a crackdown on the camps by Thai authorities, traffickers abandoned thousands of migrants in rickety boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
“We were shocked by the cruelty,” said Khalid, describing conditions at the 28 abandoned camps, scattered along a 50km stretch of the Thai border, around which the graves were found.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims are ferried by traffickers through southern Thailand each year, and in recent years it has been common for them to be held in remote camps along the rugged border with Malaysia until a ransom is paid.
Past investigations have shown ransoms demands ranging from $1,200 (€1,090) to $1,800, a fortune for impoverished migrants used to living on the equivalent of $1 or so a day.
Khalid said bullet casings were found in the vicinity and added there were signs that torture had been used. Metal chains were found near some graves.
The first decomposed body was brought down to a police camp set up at the foot of the mountains where the camps were found, an operation that took nearly five hours due to the roughness of the terrain.
Khalid said that one of the grave sites was just 100m or so from the site where 26 bodies were exhumed from a grave in Thailand’s Songkhla province in early May.
Thailand, under pressure from the US to do more to combat people smuggling, launched a crackdown after finding that mass grave. Since then more than 3,000 migrants have landed from boats in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Thai police said yesterday there were no human trafficking camps left in southern Thailand.
However, the crisis at sea is not over.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR estimated on Friday that about 3,500 migrants were stranded on overloaded vessels with dwindling supplies, and repeated its appeal for the region’s governments to rescue them.
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