BANGKOK Thai police found 35 migrants from Myanmar abandoned and wandering in a southern forest on Friday, raising fears that smuggling and trafficking routes are flourishing despite a crackdown by authorities.
The 28 men and seven women were discovered by villagers in Tha Sala district in Nakorn Si Thammarat province, police said. They were on their way to Malaysia and had no identification cards on them.
“They were wandering in the forest and near abandoned shrimp farms. Villagers found them and brought them to us,” Police Colonel Sophon Chamrongnigrong, an officer in charge of the case, told Reuters.
“They said they were dumped here… It is unclear who dumped them.”
Reuters has not spoken directly to the 35 who are being detained and questioned by police.
Activists say the discovery is unlikely to be a one-off and said it could suggest that smuggling routes are still thriving in Thailand despite a crackdown by authorities.
“We know from recent activity that the smuggling routes are far from quiet, despite what authorities might have us believe about the success of their trafficking crackdown,” said one activist who declined to be named because he feared repercussions.
Thai authorities in March detained 27 men from Myanmar who were allegedly trying to enter Malaysia.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State since 2012, when violent clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists killed hundreds and made about 140,000 homeless.
An estimated 75,000 Rohingya fled across the border to Bangladesh during a recent crackdown by Myanmar security forces in response to militant attacks on border posts.
Thai police said the 35 people discovered on Friday were not Rohingya although three were Muslims from Myanmar.
A 2015 crackdown on trafficking in Thailand followed the discovery of scores of jungle graves along the Thailand-Malaysia border which triggered a human trafficking investigation that reverberated across Southeast Asia.
According to the United Nations, that led to a significant downturn in the number of migrants leaving Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat.
Thailand’s military government has vowed a “zero tolerance” policy toward human trafficking.
Thailand’s efforts led last year to the country being upgraded a notch to Tier 2 “Watch List” in the annual U.S. Trafficking in Persons report.
Thailand had been downgraded to the lowest level, Tier 3, after a 2014 coup.
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by NIck Macfie; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Nick Macfie)