Malaysia has found 139 graves and signs of torture, in more than two dozen squalid human trafficking camps suspected to have been used by gangs smuggling migrants across the border with Thailand, the country’s police chief said on Monday.
The dense jungles of southern Thai- land and northern Malaysia have been a major stop-off point for smugglers bringing people to Southeast Asia by boat from Myanmar, most of them Rohingya Muslims who say they are fleeing persecution, and Bangladesh.
“It’s a very sad scene… To us even one is serious and we have found 139 (graves),” Malaysia’s Inspector General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, told reporters in the northern state of Perlis. “We are working closely with our counterparts in Thailand. We will find the people who did this.”
The grisly find follows the discovery of similar shallow graves on the Thai side of the border earlier this month, which helped trigger a regional crisis. After a crackdown on the camps by Thai authorities, traffickers abandoned thousands of migrants in rickety boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
“We were shocked by the cruelty,” said Khalid, describing conditions at the 28 abandoned camps, scattered along a 50 km (30 mile) stretch of the Thai border, around which the graves were found in an operation that began on May 11.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims are ferried by traffickers through southern Thailand each year, and in recent years it has been common for them to be held in remote camps along the rugged border with Malaysia until a ransom is paid for their freedom.
Past Reuters investigations have shown ransoms demands ranging from $1,200 to $1,800, a fortune for impoverished migrants used to living on a dollar or two a day.
Pictures of the camps shown to journalists by Malaysian police showed basic wooden huts built in forest clearings.
Khalid said bullet casings were found in the vicinity and added there were signs that torture had been used, without elaborating. Metal chains were found near some graves.