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Human trafficking gangs 'reaching out to new groups'

Latest batch of refugees from Turkey or western China shows Songkhla is a key staging point.

SOME 200 refugees - possibly Turkish or Uighurs from western China - are expected to be held in the far South for one to two months while authorities clarify their nationality and whether they should be deported.

Thai authorities, meanwhile, say Songkhla is on a major human trafficking route due to its location on the southern border.

Pol Maj-General Thatchai Pitanee-laboot, commander of the Immigration Bureau's Division 6, oversees 14 provinces in the south. In a recent interview with The Nation, he said that United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representatives had helped cater for the basic needs of refugees discovered at a secret camp in Rattaphum in Songkhla last Wednes-day. The UNHCR was satisfied with the Social Development and Human Security Ministry's treatment of refugees, which observed human-rights principles.

The latest batch of refugees of Turkish appearance might be a "new product", as the gangs expand to deliver more groups via their "transport services" to gain more income and strengthen their network. They reportedly expect more refugees coming through in the future, such as Bangladeshis.



Victims 'travelled voluntarily'

An initial key obstacle to state officials' efforts to suppress human trafficking was that the victims travelled here voluntarily, at least until some gangs they had dealt with turned to extortion and rights violations, which caused some migrants to flee.

Holding areas for people brought to Songkhla are allegedly run by locals in places such as Padang Besar in Sadao and Rattaphum district. Each migrant pays about Bt60,000 for expenses.

According to an ongoing investigation, many people appear to be involved in the transport of people from their country to destination countries, and some may be Thai officials.

The authorities have not let local communities know about the probe because of fears that some people may alert the gangs in exchange for money or other benefits. The Rattaphum case, for example, reportedly saw the gang hiring locals to transport the refugees for Bt4,000 a trip, while others renting land for the camp received Bt3,000 per head. Some locals also earned extra by selling food to the refugees.

If there was no conflict among these people, it would have been hard to get cooperation. But the March 12 raid stemmed from investigations and work to gain the help of local communities about people trafficking.

Cracking down on trafficking would not be difficult if state officials were brave, as there are only a few gangs in the 14 southern provinces.

The authorities focused their operation on tackling individuals who provide shelter, because these locations gave the gangs power to bargain to get more money from the refugees' relatives. They also want to arrest the leaders of the human trafficking gangs.

Songkhla Immigration Police have captured some 1,000 illegal migrants passing through to a third country since early this year and Thatchai's office has already experienced financial hardship coping with the food costs.

And according to a senior immigration police officer in Malaysia's Kedah state, Malaysia is also now detaining some 1,000 Rohingya refugees who had travelled through Thailand, he added.




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