PHUKET: Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing and starvation in Burma are driving a surge in business for people traffickers on the Thai border with Malaysia.
The would-be refugees, who arrive by boat, are imprisoned in primitive conditions until someone pays for their passage across the border into Malaysia.
Recently, the people smugglers' fees have risen to the equivalent of 50,000 baht or even 60,000 baht per person. Brokers have been chasing ''investors'' in a widening circle, even on Phuket or in Bangkok.
If the fee is not met, Rohingya are usually indentured to work on fishing trawlers for up to 12 months to pay off their broker bond the hard way.
Virtually all authorities on both sides of the Thailand-Malaysia border take a cut from the fee. The broker usually only pockets 10,000 baht per person as profit.
A rapidly increasing number of Muslim-minority Rohingya are fleeing Rakhine state, where so-called community violence since June has led to at least 170 deaths and the torching of thousands of houses.
Dispossessed Rohingya are being penned in rough camps, where conditions have shocked United Nations visitors and where many young children are reported to be on the verge of starvation.
At least one boat a day now leaves the region, its passengers consisting of men and teenage boys hoping for sanctuary and a fresh start in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
The tacitly-sanctioned ethnic cleansing has brought a dramatic increase in the number of departures. But the penning of the Rohinya in tens of thousands in Burma means they have been unable to make even an impoverished living for months.
So when the telephone call inevitably comes from a trafficker asking for the fee to facilitate the final step of an illegal passage to Malaysia, more families are these days unable to raise the money.
Hundreds of Rohingya are reported to spend time in captivity in the Thai provinces of Satun and Songkhla, awaiting the chance to make a crossing to Malaysia once the broker's fee is delivered.
However, with fewer people able to pay up, more Rohingya are believed to be forced to work on trawlers in conditions that amount to slavery at sea.
Survivors have told of being kept at work on the Andaman Ocean for as long as 12 months without a break, with supply tenders replenishing food and taking off loads of fish.
''People who arrive in Satun expecting to have to pay a fee are usually only kept under armed guard for a night or two,'' an informed contact told Phuketwan
''They then cross the border, either by boat or simply walking through jungle trails, depending on where they are being kept prisoner. Most of the traffickers operate from plantations.
''Once in Malaysia, the Rohingya will usually be picked up by car and deposited at the door of relatives, whether in Kuala Lumpur or some other place.
''But those who can't raise the entrance money have a problem.''
With increasing numbers taking to boats and with cash short among Rakhine Rohingya, more teenagers and young men are thought to now be forced into slavery at sea. Others become guards or act as agents for the traffickers.
As a result of the boom in supply and the lack of money, brokers have been hastening to clear the bottleneck.
''We have been contacted,'' a Rohingya source on Phuket told Phuketwan last week.
''We don't have any relatives involved.
''But the traffickers are determined to find the money any way they can to make room for the next boatload.''
In the past, non-Rohingya Muslim groups on Phuket have raised money to free young men who otherwise would have been sent to sea.
Although the system is iniquitous, Rohingya and NGOs accept it as better than the alternative: a hopeless future for many in Rakhine state, where the message of race-hate against the despised Rohingya is now openly reinforced by officials at every level.
All the Asean countries bordering the Andaman Sea along with India are part of a conspiracy to keep their sordid part in the Rohingya tragedy low-key.
Burma's neighbors no longer openly report the arrival of Rohingya.
At least seven boatloads are said to have arrived on the Malaysian holiday island of Langkawi in recent weeks, with others likely to have landed north and south of the Thai holiday island of Phuket.
Those who land far enough south of Phuket are reported to be transported to Satun and delivered to people smugglers.
Those who are captured north of Phuket are returned to Ranong, a port on the border with Burma, where they too are transferred to traffickers.
As stateless people without citizenship and unwanted in Burma, the Rohingya are seldom transported back to Rakhine.
Most often, those apprehended in Thailand north of Phuket are recorded as ''Burmese'' to prevent alarming NGOs or the media.
The surge of Rohingya in the border bottleneck is expected to grow between now and April when the monsoon season makes the perilous voyage - which can be deadly at any time - too dangerous even for desperate people.