Image: Myanmarese illegal migrant workers
Chaiwat Subprasom  /  Reuters
A policeman stands between a group of female Myanmarese illegal migrant workers, rescued from a cramped container, in a prison cell at a police station in Sooksamran district, south of Bangkok.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/11/2008 11:55:11 AM ET 2008-04-11T15:55:11

Survivors of a human smuggling tragedy in Thailand, in which 54 people suffocated in a locked container truck, will be deported back to army-ruled Myanmar, a Thai court ruled on Friday.

Some of the 67 survivors were fined up to $62 each for being in the country illegally, but most could not pay and faced a brief jail term before being deported, officials said. The 14 youths in the group were sent to an immigration center to await their return to the former Burma.

Human rights groups condemned the ruling.

"Rather than encourage their participation in the legal prosecution of exploitative smugglers, the Thai authorities will instead summarily deport them to Burma," the Migrant Working Group, a coalition of NGOs, said in a statement.

Human trafficking
The horrific deaths of the 54, who were among 121 people crammed into a stifling hot 20-ft container for several hours, has focused attention on migrant labor and the scourge of traffickers and smugglers in the region.

The Migrant Working Group said it documented 10 cases in which more than 100 people had died being transported to Thailand in the past year.

The driver of the container truck, identified by police as Suchon Boonplong, has eluded a manhunt since he abandoned the vehicle late on Wednesday.

"Police from various units are looking for Suchon and other people involved in the trafficking ring," Police Major-General Apirak Hongthong told reporters.

Both men will be charged with conspiracy to hide, help or smuggle illegal aliens into Thailand, and for careless actions causing death, police said.

If convicted, they face a maximum 10 years in jail.

Survivors said they pounded on the sides and screamed at the driver as the air grew thinner after the air conditioning system broke down.

"We contacted the driver using a mobile phone, but he told us in Burmese to keep quiet and make no trouble," Tida Toy, 21, told the Bangkok Post newspaper.

"He switched off the phone and drove on," she said.

Desperate for work
About 2 million migrants from across the region are working in Thailand, most of them fleeing the former Burma where 46 years of army misrule have crippled a once-promising economy.

Only 500,000 migrants are in the country legally, a labor Ministry official told Channel 9 television.

Under Thai law, registered migrants have the same rights as Thais, but in practice this is far from the case. They are routinely denied access to such basic rights as education, medical care and freedom of movement.

The vast majority of migrants are unregistered and work illegally in factories, restaurants, at petrol pumps and as domestic helpers or crew on fishing trawlers.

Many migrants, both legal and illegal, suffer abuse, the International labor Organization (ILO) said.

Its research found 75 percent of Thai employers interviewed believed it was okay to lock up migrant workers so they "couldn't escape." There is also evidence of forced and child labor involving migrants, it said.

Bangkok was "obliged to prevent the exploitation of those migrants in Thailand, regardless of the documentation they may or may not have," ILO East Asia Director Bill Salter said.

The Asian Human Rights Commission worried Thailand would use the tragedy as a pretext to crack down on migrant laborers, who often do jobs Thais will not.

"These people are propping up their country's economy, and thus doing their part to prevent a much greater catastrophe on Thailand's doorstep," it said.

Aye, whose 8-year-old daughter died in the truck, said she could not provide for her other two children in Myanmar — a 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son — if she was unable to work in Thailand.

"I am very worried about my future. What will happen to my two children at home? I can't afford to live at home. There is nothing for me to do there," she told Reuters from her jail cell.

Locked inside packed container
Survivors told police they traveled Wednesday night by fishing boat to Ranong, about 290 miles south of Bangkok, from Victoria Point, said Col. Kraithong Chanthongbai, police chief for Ranong's Suksamran district.

They were loaded onto a cold storage truck normally used to carry seafood, locked inside and forced to ride standing in its sweltering container area, about 7 feet wide, 7 feet high and 20 feet deep.

They were on the road for about two hours when passengers started collapsing, they said. Temperatures in the province Wednesday reached 93 degrees.

"I thought everyone was going to die," Saw Win, a 30-year-old survivor, told The Associated Press from police custody. "If the truck had driven for 30 minutes more, I would have died for sure."

He said that about 30 minutes into the trip the occupants pounded on the walls of the truck, screamed for ventilation and used a mobile phone to call the driver, who briefly turned on air conditioning.

The air conditioning later shut down, and they called the driver again 30 minutes later but his phone was off. They continued pounding and screaming until he stopped the truck about an hour later, unlocked the door and ran off when he saw the state of the victims, Saw Win said.

The translator for the police, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, gave a slightly different account.

He said survivors told him the air conditioning had broken down while the truck was waiting for a police checkpoint to close for the night.

The interpreter, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the driver ran away without unlocking the door.

Villagers rescue survivors
It was only when nearby villagers heard screams and banging from the vehicle that they came to investigate and opened the doors, he said.

"When police got to the scene, they found that 54 of the workers were already dead in the packed container truck," said Col. Kraithong. Thirty-seven of the dead were women and 17 were men. The 67 survivors were split about evenly between men and women.

Television footage showed police lifting bodies out of the truck until it was emptied except for a few pieces of clothing.

The dead, limbs stiffened, many wearing little more than T-shirts, shorts and sandals, were laid out on the floor of a storage facility of a local charity.

Kraithong said late Thursday that two survivors remained hospitalized, while the other 65 were being held by police. The number of survivors originally announced was lower because not all those detained had been counted.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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