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4/10/2008

Thai police find 54 dead Burmese workers in lorry

Filed under: burma,global islands,government,human rights,thailand — admin @ 6:51 am

Fifty-four illegal Burmese migrants who were being smuggled by traffickers in southern Thailand suffocated in the sweltering confines of a tiny seafood container lorry today after the air-conditioning system failed.

Some of the 67 survivors told how they were just 30 minutes into their journey to the resort island of Phuket, where they hoped to find work, when conditions became unbearably stifling.

But the driver warned those trying to alert him by banging on the container’s walls and calling him on his mobile phone to be quiet for fear of tipping off the police as they passed through check-points along the route.

He turned on the air-conditioning, but it failed and went off after a few minutes. When the driver finally stopped on a quiet road running along the Andaman Sea 90 minutes later, many of the migrants, mostly women, had already collapsed. After discovering the horrific scene, he ran away.

“I thought everyone was going to die,” said survivor, Saw Win, 30. “I thought I was going to die. If the truck had driven for 30 minutes more, I would have died for sure.”

It underscored the plight of Burmese migrants fleeing conflict and economic collapse in their homeland who flood into Thailand across the porous border desperately seeking work.

As many as 150,000 languish in refugee camps along the border. But another 1.5 million live and work in Thailand, often in the seafood processing, fishing and construction industries that Thais shun.

Just 482,925 have managed to secure work permits leaving at least a million working illegally, vulnerable to abuse from corrupt officials and exploited by unscrupulous employers. They are forced to work for as little as £1.15 a day, half what a Thai worker could expect.

The 121 migrants who found themselves crammed in the seafood container left Song Island in Burma last night for the short sea crossing by fishing boat, landing near Ranong.

They paid the traffickers £82 each to transport them to Phuket to work as day labourers, but were so tightly packed into the truck there was standing-room only in the air-tight container measuring just six metres long and 2.2 metres wide.

“It was hot when the truck started moving,” one 40-year-old survivor explained from his bed in Ranong hospital, where another 20 were treated. “We asked the driver to turn the air-conditioner on. The heat made me pass out and the next thing I knew I was in hospital.”

Police Colonel Kraithong Chanthongbai said: “The people said they tried to bang on the walls of the container to tell the driver they were dying, but he told them to shut up as police would hear them when they crossed through check-points inside Thailand.”

When police reached the scene in the early hours of this morning, tipped off by local villagers, they found 54 of the migrants already dead. Officers were seen lifting the bodies of the 37 women and 17 men, dressed in little more than T-shirts and shorts, from the truck’s rear where only rags of discarded clothing remained.

The bodies were taken to a shed where they were laid out in rows on plastic sheets. Police said they would be buried in temporary graves so that relatives could reclaim them in the future.

Tonight just two survivors remained in hospital while the other 65 were being detained by police who said they were likely to be deported as illegal immigrants.

Police were searching for the driver. The owner of the truck, part of the Rung Thip company’s fleet, was detained for questioning despite claiming to have no knowledge of the human cargo.

“We believe this must be part of a smuggling racket which has to be tracked down,” said Col Kraithong. “The large number of illegals represents a very brazen act.”

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