By Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian
PHUKET: Scores of boat people staggered from the jungle north of Phuket last night to reveal shocking treatment on their trip south from Burma in the hands of human traffickers.
One of the would-be refugees knocked on the door of Nicole Lemmo, 33, from Philadelphia, who works with Andaman Discoveries, an ecotourism group. The man looked distressed and was wearing only a sarong wrap.
Despite a communications barrier, Ms Lemmo and her roommate went with the man and discovered other thin, hungry boatpeople emerging from the jungle, near the fishing port of Kuraburi.
”We organised to cook some rice for them as soon as possible,” Ms Lemmo said. ”They were clearly hungry after being lost in the jungle for days.”
Officials subsequently rounded up 86 men, including some who could barely walk, and gave them shelter in a community hall near the police station.
Some have fever and are in need of urgent medical help, the superintendent of Kuraburi Police Station told Phuketwan.
The 86 join hundreds of men, women and children who have fetched up in Thailand in recent weeks, either enticed from Bangladesh by the promise of better jobs or forced into the sea by ethnic cleansing in Burma (Myanmar).
They are part of a massive exodus of people fleeing Burma and Bangladesh. According to Chris Lewa, Director of the rights group The Andaman Project, 15,000 men, women and children have boarded boats to sail south, past Thailand, since October 15.
”Since November 1, the number has dropped to 200 a day,” Ms Lewa said today. ”But for 10 days before then, people were leaving at the rate of 900 a day. Most of those thousands of people remain unaccounted for.”
Ms Lemmo said today that she was able to glean from the men in broken English that traffickers had ”tossed them into Thailand,” then sailed on.
The men mostly wore wristbands, some colored pink and others orange, that usually indicate the wearers are being trafficked to specific ”brokers.”
Ms Lemmo said the men told her they had left Burma 21 days ago and had been surviving in the mangroves and the jungle around Kuraburi for five days.
”They were weak and emaciated and in some cases, barely able to walk,” she said.
The arrival of more than 500 boatpeople in the past three weeks has stretched resources north of Phuket at the same time as local residents along the Andaman Sea coast have been conducting a rebellion against the human trafficking that has gone on in secret in Thailand for more than five years.
Whether or not the Bangladeshis and Rohingya leave voluntarily, the abuses on the boats and in the secret jungle camps, where rapes, deaths and beatings for extortion take place, makes clear that they are victims of human trafficking.
Thai officials have been reluctant to accept the responsibility of dealing with the issue to international standards and have done their best to speed the boatpeople through Thailand, declaring hundreds of victims to be merely ”illegal immigrants.”
More than five years without law enforcement has allowed a huge industry of trading in people to flourish along Thailand’s Andaman coast, adding to the misery especially of the stateless Rohingya who are persecuted and unwanted in Burma.
The issue Thai officials raise when asked why the boatpeople are not treated properly is money. ”No organisation has a budget to take care of them,” one authority said.
Thailand also does not want to attract more refugees and has made the country appear unwelcoming to avoid dealing with the issue created by racism and hatred in neighboring Burma.
Thailand was dropped to the lowest level on the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons register earlier this year. Asean countries put no pressure on Burma to resolve the issue by making citizens of the Rohingya and protecting them from racism.
US President Barack Obama visits Burma this week and is likely to call on the government to change, or face possible sanctions.