Three journalists traveled on motorbikes and then hiked through rubber plantations and dense jungle to directly confirm the existence of a major camp near Baan Klong Tor.
Concealed by a blue tarpaulin tent, the Rohingya were split into groups of men and women. Some prayed. The encampment was patrolled by armed guards and protected by villagers and police. The reporters did not attempt to enter. Villagers who have visited the camp said the number of people held inside ranged from an estimated 500 to a thousand or more, depending on the number of people arriving, departing or escaping.
Interviews with about a dozen villagers also confirmed two other large camps: one less than a mile away, and another in Padang Besar, near the Malaysian border.
Chatchawal admitted there was an unofficial policy to deport the Rohingya to Myanmar. He called this “a natural way or option two.” However, he said the Rohingya went voluntarily.
“Some Rohingya in our IDCs can’t stand being in limbo, so they ask to return to where they came from,” Chatchawal said. “This means going back to Myanmar.” Rohingya at the IDCs, for instance, sign statements in the presence of a local Muslim leader, in which they agree they want to return to Myanmar. These statements, however, were at times produced in the absence of a Rohingya language translator. When reporters visited the Sadao IDC for this story, the translator was a Muslim from Myanmar who spoke only Thai and Burmese, and thus unable to explain what the detainees were signing.
Chatchawal was also presented with recent testimony from Rohingya who said they were not taken to back to Myanmar. Instead, they were put in boats by Thai immigration officials, told they had been sold and taken under duress to Thailand’s camps. Reporters interviewed four Rohingya for this story who said they fell prey to trafficking with official complicity.
At the house where Ediris and Ismail were interviewed were two other survivors of the trafficking camps: Abdul Basser, 24, and Fir Mohamed, 28. They told similar stories. Both were arrested after arriving in Thailand on Jan. 25, and held at the overcrowded Phang Nga IDC for about eight months. On Oct. 17, the two men, along with dozens of other Rohingya, were driven overnight to Ranong.
“We were told we could go back to Myanmar,” Mohamed said.
That day, 48 Rohingya and five Buddhist Burmese were loaded into trucks and driven to a pier. The five Burmese were put on one boat; the Rohingya were put on another. After about a half hour at sea, the captain cut the engine.
“We thought the engine had stalled or broke down,” Basser said. “The captain told us we could not go back to Myanmar, that we had been sold by the immigration and police.”
Mohamed and Basser, too, escaped after being brought to an island near mainland Thailand. Until now, the Thai government has denied official complicity in the trafficking of Rohingya. However, in a break with that position, Chatchawal said Thai officials might have received money previously in exchange for Rohingya, but not anymore.
“In the past, and I stress in the past, there may have been cases of officials taking payments for handing over migrants to boats,” he said. “I am not ruling it out, but I don’t know of any specific cases recently.” He said it was possible the Rohingya were intercepted by brokers and never made it to Myanmar.