"It seemed so official at first. They took our photographs. They took our fingerprints. And then once in the boats, about 20 minutes out to sea, we were told we had been sold." That's how one refugee describes the day Thai immigration officials sold him to human traffickers. Since October, Thailand has been systematically handing huge numbers of Rohingya refugees from Burma over to trafficking groups, who then whisk them to secret "tropical gulags" along the Malaysian border, a Reuters investigation has revealed. There, refugees are held for ransom; if they or their families can't pay, they're either pressed into service as cooks or guards, or sold as farm labor for as little as $155.
One former captive says that at least one person died of dehydration or disease every day in the camps; he says he was beaten regularly. Another tells of disposing of the bodies of two men who were brutally killed after attempting to escape. When confronted, a major general with the Thai Royal Police actually admitted the existence of the secret program, which they call "option two," and said Thai officials might have profited from it at one point. Not that things were much better for the Rohingya before "option two" came into play. The persecuted Muslim minority hails from Burma and Bangladesh, but both countries consider the Rohingya to be illegal aliens. Many have fled for Malaysia, but they're often waylaid in Thailand. As of early October, more than 2,000 Rohingya were being held in horrifically overcrowded Thai immigration detention centers, their muscles atrophying because they lacked space to move. Thanks to "option two," their ranks have shrunk to 154. For much more, read Reuters' full report. (Read more Rohingya stories.)