PHUKET, Thailand – Adding to their plight, Burmese Muslims escaping from state-sponsored persecution are being intercepted and sold by Thai police to human traffickers.
“The broker said that they bought us from police,” Ahmed, a Rohingya Muslim refugee who was sold by Thai police, told the BBC News Online.“If we don't give them money they won't let us go. They said: 'We don't care if you die here'.”
|‘Open Prison’ for Rohingya Muslims|
Ahmed’s misery started when he travelled with 60 Rohingya Muslims for 13 days on a flimsy wooden boat across the Andaman Sea to the coast of Thailand.
But their boat was intercepted and arrested by the Thai navy.
At night, the Muslim refugees were moved in a police van from the border town of Ranong.
After two hours, they were bundled out and put in the back of six smaller vehicles and hidden under nets.
“We were forced to lay down next to each other just like canned fish,” he said.
To their shock, they found out that they were sold to human traffickers and were moved to the Malaysian borders.
They finally found themselves prisoners in Su Ngai Kolok, a town on the Thai-Malaysian borders.
“They dug a hole for us to use as a toilet. We ate, slept and excreted in the same place,” Ahmed said.
“The smell was horrible. I was poked with an iron and beaten with a chain.”
The price for Ahmed's life was set at 40,000 Thai Baht, about $1,300 (£820) - a substantial amount for an ex-fisherman.
They refugees were told by traffickers that they would win their freedom if they paid for it.
Ahmed called his wife to sell a cow. But that only raised half the amount.
After a month as a captive, as he began to despair, a fellow Rohingya in Thailand came to his rescue and loaned him the rest.
Thai officials say that selling Rohingya Muslims is the “natural” solution to the problem of refugees arriving at Thai shores.
“The Rohingya want to go Malaysia and Malaysia accepts these people because they are Muslims too,” a Thai official closely linked with the Rohingya issue told the BBC.
“No matter what they will try and go there, the question is how they get there.”
The solution is seen as a means to avoid difficulties of deportation as Rohingya Muslims were denied citizenship.
Thailand does not want to encourage the immigration of Rohingya Muslims it considers to be almost exclusively economic migrants.
Ahmed is not the only Rohingya refugees being sold by Thai officials.
With weather conditions favorable, Rohingya boats are now arriving on the Thai coast almost everyday.
The trafficking includes men, women and children.
The BBC spoke to one of the brokers involved in the deal who said that 1.5 million baht (about $50,000, £31,500) had been transferred from Malaysia and paid to officials in Thailand.
That amount was confirmed to the British broadcaster by other members of the Rohingya community in Thailand.
Thai officials, however, denied the accusations, promising an investigation into the issue.
“We cannot at this moment conclude who these perpetrators are but the Thai government is determined to get to the bottom of the problem,” Permanent Secretary Sihasak Puangketkaew said.
“At the same time the Thai government is doing its best to take care of these people on the basis of humanitarian principles.
“At the same time we feel very strongly that all of us will have to work together through international co-operation to see how we can put on place a durable and systematic solution.”
Described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, Rohingya Muslims are facing a catalogue of discrimination in their homeland.
They have been denied citizenship rights since an amendment to the citizenship laws in 1982 and are treated as illegal immigrants in their own home.
The Burmese government as well as the Buddhist majority refuse to recognize the term “Rohingya”, referring to them as “Bengalis”.In July, Burmese President Thein Sein said that Rohingyas should be settled in a third country.
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