Wang Kelian, Malaysia. Hassan Ismail wasn’t surprised when authorities found abandoned jungle camps near his village in northern Malaysia last week where 139 suspected human trafficking victims could be buried.
For the past three years, he said, small groups of sickly, rake-thin men regularly turned up to beg for food at his mosque in Wang Kelian, a village that is about 3 kilometers from the nearest camp.
The men told villagers they were Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim people fleeing persecution and poverty in western Myanmar for jobs in Malaysia.
“They were very hungry,” said Ismail, 66, the mosque’s imam or prayer leader. “The villagers gave them food and then called the police.”
Afterwards, he said, the drill was the same: police took the Rohingya away, and the villagers never found out what happened to them.
The testimony of four Wang Kelian villagers, including prominent locals such as Ismail, raises questions about what the Malaysian authorities knew, and when, about the extensive and long-running human-smuggling operation along the rugged border with Thailand.
For years, tens of thousands of boat people have sailed from Myanmar and Bangladesh, before making the overland journey through Thailand to Malaysia.
Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar admitted his country’s border with Thailand was “porous” but said that human smuggling was not Malaysia’s problem alone.
“This is an international problem. The migrants hail from both Myanmar and Bangladesh,” he said at a news conference in Wang Kelian on Thursday.
No patrolling of hilltop
Malaysian police announced on Monday they had found 139 graves around 28 abandoned trafficking camps scattered along a 50-kilometer stretch of the border in the northern state of Perlis.
The graves were discovered by commandos as they combed the area after Thai authorities found 36 bodies in trafficking camps on its side of the border in early May, the police said.
Asked why it took so long to find the camps that had apparently been there for years, Wan Junaidi said police patrols in the area were aimed at catching smugglers of contraband, not people, and didn’t discover the camps because they stuck to lower ground.
“Our patrols don’t normally go on the top of the hill,” he said. “We skim on the sides.”
Wan Junaidi dismissed the villagers’ reports provided to Reuters of seeing migrants years earlier in Wang Kelian “Nobody can prove if they were illegal migrants or [legal] foreign workers,” he said.
However, he added two policemen posted along the border were being investigated for collusion with the traffickers and had been arrested. He said the two, who were not named, were suspected of involvement in transporting the migrants, but he did not elaborate.
Noor Rashid Ibrahim, a deputy inspector-general of police, said: “We focused on smuggling routes. Normally, smuggling routes are in areas which are accessible. That is why we didn’t go to the top of the hill.”
Call to prayer
Police have exhumed the remains of four people from a trafficking camp at Bukit Wang Burma, a hill near Wang Kelian village.
There is a police checkpoint and barracks only a few hundred meters from the jungle path that leads up to the Bukit Wang Burma camp.
The camps are located in a remote but sensitive border area that many state agencies are tasked with monitoring.
Wang Bukit Burma is also part of Perlis State Park, a magical but unforgiving landscape of limestone towers and misty forests. Park rangers forbid locals from entering to stop them cutting down trees or poaching animals, said Ismail.
Desperate Rohingya migrants were regular visitors to Wang Kelian, said Adi Zunaidi, the village chief.
At the end of December, said Zunaidi, “hundreds” of Rohingya men, women and children appeared in the village. They were thin with sunken eyes, and wore dirty, tattered clothes. Many were barefoot.
“I asked them how long they had been in the jungle,” said Zunaidi, who said he spoke to the migrants in broken English. “They said one or two months. They were hungry. We gave them food and clothes.”
Afterwards, the police again took the Rohingya away, Zunaidi said.
Reuters has asked police and the home ministry in the capital Kuala Lumpur about what happened to the people taken away, but has not got a reply.
Neither Ismail nor Zunaidi knew of the camps. Zunaidi said he learned of the camps after a steady build-up of police personnel in the area from early April, and conversations with locals at coffee-shops frequented by the officers.
Ismail said he had assumed the hungry migrants hailed from nearby rubber plantations. “We never thought there were camps or graves in the hills,” he said.
Another villager, Mohamad Ardi, 29, a construction worker, said he often saw small groups of barefoot migrants walk past his house at night.
“They were thin and wore old clothes,” he said.
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