BANGKOK—Burmese migrant workers in Thailand have described paying large fees to human traffickers who promised them jobs in the southeast Asian kingdom, only to sell them into forced labor on arrival.
One Burmese migrant from Myawaddy currently in the care of social services in Bangkok said he had been promised passage to Thailand and a job in the construction industry by a Burmese named Ko Sein Aung.
"He was the carrier who handed us over to the person taking us across to Thailand along the illegal route. We had to pay him for that. It was 2,000 baht (U.S. $60)," the worker said.
"He told us we would get a job in construction. He said we would earn 195 baht (U.S. $6) a day. We were all sold off including me for 22,000 baht (U.S. $658) each to the fishing industry."
He said people in charge of the boats locked up the workers every night, before taking them back to the boats the next morning. They were not paid for their work.
"Every day when the boat we were working on reached the jetty and after we had unloaded the fish at night we were taken to our rooms and kept there, and the door locked from the outside," he said.
"That was how we were detained. The next day only when the fishing boat is due to leave were we sent to the boat."
Forced to migrate
Currently, Thailand is home to an estimated 2 million Burmese migrant workers, of whom only around half are there legally.
Burmese workers are highly visible in and around Bangkok and near the Central World Plaza, and Burmese children under 10 years old can be seen selling food on street stalls.
Many of the migrants say they were forced to move because of extreme poverty back home.
An ethnic Karen migrant from the troubled border area between Thailand and Burma said some of the trafficking was being carried out by the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), which recently made a ceasefire agreement with Burma's military government.
"It was Ko Than Win from the DKBA who told us that he would find us work in Thailand. We had to pay him 15,000 kyat (U.S. $2,304)," the Karen migrant said.
"He took us to Bangkok. He said he would give us a good job in the shrimp industry. We had to wait 10 days along the way," he said.
"We were hungry. We were just given plain rice with nothing else."
Help for refugees
Some of the migrants are being taken care of by social services in Thailand after reporting beatings and other physical abuse after being sold off as slave labor, Thai officials said.
"There are a total of 47 Burmese nationals with us here," an official at the Patuhtani social welfare and rehabilitation department of the Thai government identified as Mr. Suwan said.
"We have arranged food and accommodations for them and are helping them with their rights and claims for damages," he added.
The group included men, women, and three 15-year-old children, according to a Thai lawyer surnamed Sriwun who is helping the refugees.
"Our lawyers’ group is helping refugees who have been treated unjustly, no matter what nationality they are," he said.
He said the Thai authorities had arrested a Burmese woman and two Thai nationals in connection with the allegations of human trafficking.
According to Mr. Suwan, the case could take up to 18 months to bring to trial.
The Myawaddy migrant said he was discovered by an aid group while working on the fishing boat. He had already been beaten following on escape attempt, he added.
"After we were caught they put me back in my room and beat me," he said. "A woman beat me with a two-yard pipe that she always carried. She beat me continuously. She also threatened to kill my father."
According to the U.S. State Department's latest Trafficking in Persons Report, Thailand is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.
"Women and children are trafficked from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Russia, and Uzbekistan for commercial sexual exploitation in Thailand," the report said, saying the trafficking victims were usually from poorer rural areas who were attracted by the kingdom's relative prosperity.
But it lauded efforts by the Thai government to address the problem, including the expansion of a network of temporary shelters for trafficking victims from 99 to 138, with at least one temporary shelter in each Thai province.
The Thai government refers victims of trafficking to one of eight longer-stay regional shelters run by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (MSDHS), where they receive psychological counseling, food, board, and medical care, the report said.
In 2008, Thai government shelters provided protection and social services for at least 102 repatriated Thai victims and 520 foreigners trafficked to Thailand.
Original reporting by Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA's Burmese service. Director: Nancy Shwe. Translated by Soe Thinn. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.