In Bangkok, police announced on Saturday that nineteen Rohingya migrants had been arrested for illegal entry to Thailand and a Thai woman accused of housing them has also been detained.
The arrests have raised concerns about trafficking routes for the Muslim minority fleeing Myanmar, at a time when illegal migrants from that country have been linked to a second wave of COVID-19 infections across the country.
Police said the trafficking operation was discovered on 3rd January when the Rohingya migrants were found in a house in Don Mueang district of Bangkok.
“Police also managed to arrest one Thai woman in Pathum Thani on the charge of providing shelter to the Rohingya,” Pol Col Kissana Phathanacharoen, the deputy police spokesman, told AFP.
The group was smuggled into Thailand overland from Rakhine state in Myanmar and was bound for Malaysia, said an immigration officer who declined to be named.
“They didn’t know what kind of work they would find in Malaysia, they just wanted to get out of Rakhine,” he said, adding that the Thai woman’s husband, who is still at large, had promised them jobs.
Out of the 19 Rohingya, 7 tested positive for COVID-19 and are being treated, said the officer, while the rest are being kept in quarantine as a precaution.
Thailand was thrust into the international spotlight in 2015 during the “boat crisis”, in which desperate Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were stranded at sea and abandoned by their traffickers.
Police officers, a high-ranking general and several local politicians were among scores convicted for their role in the trafficking network, which spilled into full view after officials found dozens of shallow graves in hidden camps near the Malaysian border.
Pol Col Phathanacharoen said the latest discovery of the 19 Rohingya, along with the threat of the COVID-19 spreading, has authorities worried.
“The chief of Thai police has expressed his concern over the issue of police being potentially involved with the smuggling scandal, so he has ordered subordinates to strictly follow the law,” Pol Col Phathanacharoen told AFP.
Earlier this week nearly 100 Rohingya bound for Malaysia were arrested in a raid in Yangon. Authorities are still investigating whether the smugglers are part of a wider network.
The embattled Rohingya Muslims have long faced persecution in Myanmar, where they are denied freedom of movement and citizenship and lack access to work, healthcare and schools.
A 2017 military crackdown in western Rakhine state sent almost 750,000 fleeing across the border to Bangladesh, while many choose to embark on treacherous journeys with human smugglers to reach Malaysia and Indonesia, sometimes going through Thailand.