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Seeking Safe Passage, Persecuted Myanmar Minority Risk Abuse by Traffickers

August 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next to Southeast Asia.

The nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma, is home to one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, that according to the U.N. They are Muslims known as the Rohingya. And human rights groups say they have been recent targets of ethnic cleansing by their Buddhist neighbors.

John Sparks of Independent Television News reports on the dangerous journey for those who try to leave.

JOHN SPARKS: On a windswept stretch of the Bangladesh coast, there is a ragged-looking settlement hidden amongst the trees, home to thousands who’ve fled from neighboring Burma. They’re Rohingya Muslims fleeing vicious ethnic violence in their homeland, but few want to stay, however. They have come here to find themselves a ship. They want to escape. And these people are desperate.

MAN (through interpreter): What else can I do? I would rather die than remain here. The people call us terrible names and the police put us in jail. It’s the same situation in Burma. What would you do?

JOHN SPARKS: Inside a shabby-looking shack, our team found one group waiting for instructions, waiting for a telephone call to say their boat to Malaysia is ready.

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Recruited by brokers, they have been here waiting for days, some young, some old, all determined to leave. The brokers have charged them 200 pounds each, but the true cost of this crossing will be much higher. Rohingya board vessels off Burma or Bangladesh with one basic aim. They want to be taken south, past Thailand, and onto Malaysia, where they’re permitted to stay.

U.N. agencies think 35,000 people have attempted the journey in the last 12 months. And brokers told us there were several vessels used to transport Rohingya anchored in a Bangladeshi port. There are cargo ships that carry timber north and human beings on the return leg south. And they’re not easy to identify. The names have been painted over.

Our team had to film secretly. It’s thought the men on board carry arms. And we saw a series of metal cages below deck. Rohingya who’ve made the journey told us it’s where the women and children are held. The men are kept in the darkness below.

We spoke to Mohammed, who spent 11 days in the bottom of a traffickers’ ship.

MAN (through interpreter): We were kept on one of three or four floors in the hold, like wooden shelves. We had to squeeze in next to each other. We couldn’t move, and we weren’t allowed to stand up.It was intolerable.

JOHN SPARKS: The brokers promise passage to Malaysia, but the ships don’t sail that far. There’s business to be done in Thailand. Passengers are disembarked and held on Thai islands, like this one. It’s called Tarutao, and it’s a Thai national park. But we discovered the southern half wasn’t being used for recreation.

It’s an isolated spot and, according to our contacts in the Rohingya community, the site of several secret prisons where hundreds of people are held captive.

We’re getting closer now. And we’re all feeling pretty tense.It’s been hard to find a boat that would take us here. Local people are scared of this place. And we don’t know what sort of reception we’re going to get.

We skirted the islands southern tip, and saw smoke from a campfire rising through the trees, so we went in for a closer look. The area seemed deserted, but we weren’t alone.

There’s clearly people there, though. We can hear the voices. We can hear people speaking. A man dressed in white emerged from the trees. He wasn’t happy and told us to go.

MAN: No, no, no, no!

JOHN SPARKS: Our driver said the man was a camp guard, and we decided to flee. It was a dangerous place to be. Former captives on the island told us they were held by armed guards. And to release them, relatives have to pay a ransom of around 1,500 pounds.

Rafiq spent 19 terrifying days on Tarutao island. It’s an experience he longs to forget.

MAN (through interpreter): They lined us up and gave us a mobile phone. We were told to call our relatives. They demand the money and beat us up. They beat us continually until they get the cash.

JOHN SPARKS: Rafiq’s father, Salamot, is not a wealthy man, but he did as he was told. He sold his cattle to free his son. And if prisoners are unable to get the money, to raise the ransom, well, they’re sold as slave labor to Thai fishing boats, we’re told.

Here’s Mohammed:

MAN (through interpreter): If you can’t raise the money, you get sold to fishermen. The brokers warn you about it.If your relatives don’t have money, they will sell you.

JOHN SPARKS: Allegations of forced labor on Thai fishing boats have surfaced before, but the mass trafficking of Rohingya is cloaked in secrecy. However, we managed to meet a member of a trafficking gang. He called himself Bo and told us he was charge of security on Tarutao island. I asked him whether he beats the prisoners.

MAN (through interpreter): We beat them to make an example of them.

JOHN SPARKS: And how do the traffickers avoid the attention of the Thai authorities? “Simple,” he said. “They have paid bribes to 10 different police and military units in the last four months.”

MAN (through interpreter): It is like, when we give money to this group, the next group comes along. And it goes on and on.It never ends.

JOHN SPARKS: Back on the mainland, the local police chief denied that his officers take bribes.

MAN (through interpreter): I am strict here myself. That sort of thing doesn’t happen here.

JOHN SPARKS: The police and the military here are well aware that Tarutao island and others like it are used by the traffickers.You know that.

MAN (through interpreter): I know, but we don’t have the resources we need to keep an eye on them all the time. The provincial police don’t have a boat, for example.

JOHN SPARKS: There was a surprising development.

As we continued our investigation, Thai police found a number of vessels and conducted a raid on the same spot we’d visited days earlier. They provided us with these pictures.In a jungle clearing, they found a multitude of anxious faces huddled together in rudimentary huts and plastic-wrapped long houses. Other prisoners were discovered in camps located further inland.

A stop sign warned captives not to approach a nearby beach, while a guard tower loomed overhead. The traffickers’ accounts were seized.Names of individual brokers are recorded here; 176 were plucked from the jungle and taken to this police station on the mainland. And they were tired and shaken by their ordeal.

“They treated us like dogs,” said this man. Some told us they that wanted to go to Australia, but their journey concluded with a trip to the local detention center.

However, more Rohingya are sure to follow, for there is money to be made from their misery.