That growing problem gave birth to “option two” in October, a secret policy to deport the refugees back to Myanmar that led to Rohingyas being sold to human trafficking networks.
A hint of the policy shift came weeks earlier, on Sept. 13, when Police Lieutenant General Panu Kerdlarppol, chief of the Immigration Bureau, met with officials from other agencies on the island of Koh Samui to decide what to do with the Rohingya. Afterward, Kerdlarppol announced that immigration authorities would take statements from the Rohingya “to arrange their deportation” and to see if any want to go home. Arrangements would be made for those who did.
By early October, 2,058 Rohingya were held in 14 IDCs across Thailand, according to the Internal Security Operations Command, a national security agency run by the Thai military. A month later, that number stood at about 600, according to non-governmental organizations and Muslim aid workers. By the first week of December, it was 154, Thailand’s immigration department said. Rohingya were fast disappearing from Thailand’s IDCs, and nobody knew where they were going.
Central to the policy was Ranong, a sparsely populated Thai province whose geography has always made it a smugglers’ paradise. Ranong shares a long, ill-policed land and sea border with Myanmar.
The provincial capital, also called Ranong, was built on tin mining but now lives off fishing and tourism. Rust-streaked trawlers from Thailand and Burma ply the same waters as dive boats and yachts. So do wooden “long-tail” boats, named after their extended drive-shafts, which ferry Burmese migrant workers to the Myanmar port of Kawthaung, only a 30-minute voyage away.
By late October, hundreds of Rohingya were being packed onto immigration trucks and driven to Ranong for processing and deportation. Among them were Ismail and Ediris, who arrived in the port city after a grueling, standing-room-only journey of 1,200km from Nong Khai.
At Ranong’s IDC, they were photographed and told by Thai immigration officers they were being sent back to Myanmar. “They said no other countries were accepting Rohingya, and Myanmar had become peaceful,” Ismail said.
Then they were driven to a Ranong pier and herded onto four long-tail boats, each with a three-man crew of Thais and Burmese. Once at sea, the Rohingya asked the boat driver to help them. The Burmese-speaking driver shook his head and told the Rohingya they had been sold by Thai immigration officials for 11,000 baht each.
“They told us we now belonged to them,” Ismail said.
It was early afternoon on Oct. 23. They sailed through the night until they reached a jungle camp, separated from the mainland by a narrow river. It was about 4am.
Ismail said he saw about 200 other Rohingya in that camp, mostly sleeping and guarded by men with guns. There was no water or food. He was told he must pay 60,000 baht. Did he have family who could send the money? If he did, he could go wherever he wanted, Ismail said he was told.
“If you don’t, we’ll use this,” one guard said, showing an iron rod.
Ismail had some cash but not enough. “We need to escape,” he whispered to Ediris. After an hour at the camp, just before dawn, the two men made their move. A guard fired shots in the air as they ran through the jungle and waded through a river to reach the mainland. For the next 24 hours, they survived by drinking stream water and eating the bark of banana trees. They emerged onto a rubber plantation, their feet lacerated from the barefoot jungle trek, and met a Burmese man who promised to spirit them into Malaysia for 8,000 baht each. They agreed and were driven to a house in southern Thailand, where they were interviewed hours before they were smuggled by pick-up across the Malaysian border.