BANGKOK - The United Nations called on Friday for an urgent investigation into allegations in a Reuters report that Thai immigration officials moved Myanmar refugees into human trafficking rings.
The report, published on Thursday and based on a two-month investigation in three countries, revealed a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand's immigration detention centres and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.
The Rohingya, stateless Muslims from Myanmar, are then transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay ransoms to release them, according to the Reuters report. Some are beaten and some are killed.
"These allegations need to be investigated urgently," UN refugee agency spokeswoman Vivian Tan said in a statement. "We have consistently asked countries in the region to provide temporary protection, including protection against abuse and exploitation."
Major General Chatchawal of the Royal Thai Police in Bangkok said in the report there was an unofficial policy to deport the Rohingya to Myanmar. He called this "a natural way or option two." But he said the Rohingya signed statements 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.
"The detainees also need to be informed about their options in a language they understand. Any decision to leave must be voluntary, and those who choose to leave must be protected against abuse and exploitation by smugglers," said Tan.
A senior official at New York-based Human Rights Watch criticised Thailand for moving detainees into established smuggling and trafficking rings and warned Thailand could face a possible downgrade in a US list of the world's worst offenders in fighting human trafficking.
Such a downgrade would place Thailand, a close US ally and Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy, on par with North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia among the worst offenders in fighting human trafficking, which could lead to US sanctions.
"The Thai government has some serious explaining to do before the international community," said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.