By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand will help the United Nations and the United States with any investigation into the findings of a Reuters report that Thai immigration officials moved Myanmar refugees into human-trafficking rings, the prime minister said on Saturday.
The United Nations and the United States called on Friday for an investigation into the report, published on Thursday and based on a two-month investigation in three countries, that revealed a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thai immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who chairs a government committee on human trafficking, declined to comment on the findings when asked about her reaction.
"I cannot comment on the Rohingya issue and reaction as this is the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry to handle," she said in a comment to Reuters, delivered through an aide.
"The ministry will liaise with the United States and the U.N. to help with any investigation they need."
The Rohingya are stateless Muslims from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists exploded in Myanmar last year, making 140,000 people homeless, most of them Rohingya.
Since then, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled from Myanmar by boat and many arrive off southwest Thailand.
After being delivered to human traffickers at sea, the Rohingya are transported across southern Thailand and held hostage in camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay ransoms to release them, according to the Reuters report. Some are beaten and some are killed.
"These allegations need to be investigated urgently," U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Vivian Tan said in a statement.
The United States issued a similar call hours later.
"We are aware of reports alleging that Thai officials have been involved in selling Rohingya migrants to human traffickers," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "We urge the Thai government to conduct a serious and transparent investigation into the matter."
Major General Chatchawal of the Royal Thai Police was quoted in the Reuters report as saying that there was an unofficial policy to deport the Rohingya to Myanmar.
He called this "a natural way or option two". But he said the Rohingya signed statements in which they agree they want to return to Myanmar.
These statements, however, were at times produced in the absence of a Rohingya-language translator, Reuters found.
New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch criticized Thailand for moving detainees into established smuggling and trafficking rings, and warned Thailand could face a possible downgrade in a U.S. list of the world's worst enforcers of human-trafficking laws.
Such a downgrade would place Thailand, a close U.S. ally and Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy, at risk of U.S. sanctions and put it on par with North Korea and Iran among the worst performers in fighting human trafficking.
The U.S. State Department is gathering information for its next Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report, due in June. Thailand faces an automatic downgrade to Tier 3, the lowest rank, unless it makes "significant efforts" to improve its record in combating trafficking, the State Department says. The Tier 3 designation could leave Thailand subject to U.S. sanctions.
Sek Wannamethee, a spokesman for Thailand's Foreign Ministry, said earlier that the Rohingya issue was one of several the United States would take into consideration before deciding on Thailand's grade.
Nine people have been arrested in Thailand in relation to Rohingya smuggling in 2013, including two government officials, according to police data. None of the arrests has led to convictions.
Thailand prosecuted 27 people for trafficking in 2012, down from 67 the previous year, according to the 2013 TIP Report by the U.S. State Department.
(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel and Ron Popeski)