Helpless migrants in Asia suffer kidnapping, rape — and discover that money means life or death.

Kidnapped from her family home by 10 men in a village in western Burma, 16-year-old Hazara Bibi had no time to say goodbye to her parents or two older sisters before she found herself at sea with 14 other women in the cramped lower quarters of a rickety wooden ship.

This was to be her home for two months: a boat carrying 95 men, women and children who were given small daily rations of rice and less than 100ml of water. She spent four days in terrifying uncertainty before her fellow passengers told her they were bound for Thailand, and then by land to Malaysia.

Hazara's boat spent two months at sea before the crew - apparently fearing a recent crackdown by the Thai military - abandoned the passengers on a Thai island. Now at a Thai holding camp, she said: "I just want to see my family."

It has become brutally clear recently what might have awaited Hazara: she could have been taken by the people smugglers to one of dozens of torture and detention camps hidden in the jungle along the Thai-Malaysian border. These camps were used by networks of people smugglers to hold up to 500 migrants in makeshift wooden cages, some surrounded by barbed wire. Several camps have been uncovered by Thai and Malaysian authorities alongside mass graves.


The survivor of a camp recounted her 25 terrifying days late last year near the southern Thai town of Padang Besar, where she saw people die every two or three days.

Rosida, a 25-year-old Burmese mother of two (she has no family name), revealed the scars from cigarette burns which she received as punishment after twice trying to escape from the 375-person camp. On the third attempt, she ran into the jungle and encountered two local rubber farmers who handed her to the Thai police.

"I saw people being beaten to death in the camp," she said. "I saw corpses. I knew that I needed to escape."

A Rohingya Muslim, she said she left her husband and children in Burma to try to make money after her home was destroyed by a Buddhist mob. She thought she was being taken by people smugglers to work in another village but was instead put on a boat and taken to Thailand.

"The agent in the camp demanded I pay 600 Malaysian ringgit [$230]," she said. "I didn't have the money. I didn't know what to do. Now I want to see my children. But I don't want to go back to Burma."

A migrant takes a shower at a temporary shelter in Lhoksukon, Indonesia. Photo / AP
A migrant takes a shower at a temporary shelter in Lhoksukon, Indonesia. Photo / AP

The discovery of numerous camps and mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia are the latest in a series of revelations to emerge about the brutal people-smuggling trade across Southeast Asia.

In recent years, the Thai-Malaysian border has been a transit point for about 150,000 migrants who have fled persecution in Burma or poverty in Bangladesh. The migrants departed on crowded rickety boats for Thailand, where they set off by land for Malaysia, a Muslim nation regarded by many as the end point. Most aid groups believe there are still camps in the jungle despite a crackdown by the Thai and Malaysian authorities.

"Yes, I believe that there are still camps in Thailand," said Chris Lewa, a prominent Bangkok-based aid worker who has highlighted the plight of the migrants. "If people have the money when they arrive, they are not tortured. Those that contact their family and the money does not come, they start to beat them while they are talking on the phone to pressure the family.


He said people were killed or raped. "Most people died of disease and lack of vitamins."

The people-smuggling networks in the region have developed into ruthless business operations, which rely on the tacit support or direct assistance of corrupt police, military and immigration officials and politicians across Thailand and Malaysia.

The plight of the migrants came to the world's attention when Thailand's military rulers began cracking down on the trade in February and March as part of an anti-corruption drive. Military patrols along the border began to uncover mass graves and camps in the jungle, which may have encouraged the smugglers to set up their bases on the Malaysian side.

Malaysian police forensic team members inspect a freshly exhumed human body from an unmarked grave in Wang Burma at the Malaysia-Thailand border. Photo / AP
Malaysian police forensic team members inspect a freshly exhumed human body from an unmarked grave in Wang Burma at the Malaysia-Thailand border. Photo / AP

The Thai operation left an estimated 25,000 migrants stranded at sea on overcrowded boats and prompted the people smugglers to seek new destinations for their cargo. The boats either stayed in international waters or began to head for the coasts of nearby Indonesia and Malaysia, which deployed their navies to tow them back to sea, creating a so-called "human ping pong".

Some boats were stranded at sea for up to four months, often abandoned by the crews. Many passengers died of dehydration and malnourishment and were thrown overboard.

Many of the migrants are from the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma; others are fleeing poverty in Bangladesh.

A summit of 17 nations was held in Bangkok on Friday on the situation but it produced few concrete results.