People smuggling gangs under spotlight in Thailand

Another 112 Muslims detained after being found on Cambodian border; Officials from Chinese embassy say a quarter are Uighurs

Another 112 Muslims detained after being found on Cambodian border; Officials from Chinese embassy say a quarter are Uighurs

BANGKOK - Thai authorities said Friday they have identified suspects involved in the illegal smuggling of about 220 Muslim migrants, found at a secret camp in the country's south around nine days ago.

But they are still uncertain about the identity and home country of the "illegals," who claimed to have arrived via Turkey. The 220 men, women and children are thought to be Uighurs from Xinjiang in western China.

The discovery of the group in an isolated rubber plantation in Songkhla province in the country's south has aroused suspicion that people-smuggling gangs in Southeast Asia are branching out.

Provinces in the far south have been seen as a hub for gangs seeking to ferry Rohingya refugees, fleeing dire conditions in Rakhine State in the west of Myanmar, into Malaysia over recent years.

But the latest group, found March 12, has prompted speculation that criminal networks are taking people from regions a lot further away than their neighboring country.

A senior Immigration Police officer told reporters this week the 220 immigrants of "Turkish appearance" might be a "new product."

Immigration Bureau Division 6 chief Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot told The Nation newspaper it appeared that people smugglers had expanded to deliver more groups through their "transport services" to gain more income and to strengthen their network.

He said those being smuggled were prepared to pay US$1,000 per person, or more, for passage to a third country.

Thailand has the been subject of a vast influx of refugees from all sides since the "American war" in Indochina - Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - in the 1960s and 70s, and protracted civil strife in Myanmar since the mid-1980s.

Over a million Cambodians were returned to their homeland in the early 90s, and several hundred thousand refugees from Laos and Vietnam were also resettled abroad over this period.

Meanwhile, close to 80,000 refugees from Myanmar have been sent to third countries -- mainly the United States -- and there are still more than 120,000 refugees in 10 camps spread along the border with Myanmar.

But in recent years Thailand has also seen a jump in people trafficking, partly because it has relaxed visa restrictions to boost tourist numbers and income from tourism, which provides millions of jobs and generates about 7 percent of the local economy.

Ethnic strife in Rakhine state in Myanmar since mid-2012 has also meant a big increase in boats full of destitute refugees seeking a better life.

Thailand has long and porous boundaries, and with the relatively low wages paid to police and officials, getting into the country is not difficult, analysts have said.

Opening the doors to mass tourism has also made it easier for people smuggling groups to proliferate, but this has created a burden for immigration officials.

Recent arrivals -- thousands of Rohingya or Bangladeshi "boat people," generally en route to Malaysia, and now hundreds of suspected Uighurs -- have stretched resources further.

Thai officials have sought help from the United Nations refugee agency and the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) to care for and identify the 220 Muslim migrants found in Songkhla, plus other groups detained this month.

Some 112 Muslims have also been detained at Suan Phlu, the main immigration detention center in Bangkok. Officials from the Chinese embassy have confirmed that about a quarter of these people are Uighurs, according to a report in the Bangkok Post on Friday.

This second group was rounded up in Sa Kaew, an eastern province adjacent to Cambodia, but thought to have travelled overland from the far north.

Meanwhile, a further 115 illegal migrants were found this month in two separate cases in the Thai provinces of Phatthalung and Songkhla.

The arrival of so many illegal migrants is a reason why immigration officials have reportedly discussed expanding the size of detention facilities in Songkhla and Sadao with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In the short-term, this situation appears likely to continue, until the political impasse blocking the formation of a new government is resolved.

Copyright © 2014 Anadolu Agency