Deputy home minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said two police officers had been arrested, fuelling long-standing criticism by rights groups over a lack of action against alleged official involvement in the illicit trade. Malaysian authorities said on Thursday they were investigating official complicity and links to the shocking discovery of a network of people-smuggling camps and mass graves hidden in the jungle.
“Two police officers who are suspected of involvement in transporting the people from Myanmar [Burma] have been arrested,” he told reporters in Wang Kelian, the Malaysia’s border town near the discovery of the camps.
He declined to comment on whether more police officers might be involved, saying authorities would “investigate everybody and anybody”. He also said several Rohingya who were already in Malaysia were arrested for helping to recruit migrants to the country.
Malaysia announced this week it had uncovered 28 camps deep in the jungle in the country’s north, close to the Thai border, and 139 grave sites scattered around the area.
It was the latest shocking development in Asia’s migrant crisis, which has exposed the plight of Rohingya Muslims from Burma who are fleeing persecution and of Bangladeshis escaping poverty, brought by boat to the dense forests of southern Thailand and northern Malaysia by people smugglers.
The authorities have faced criticism following the discovery, with mounting questions about their failure to detect the sites earlier and whether police may have been complicit.
The Guardian talked to a number of residents in Wang Kelian this week who said migrants had been coming out of the jungle for at least two years – indicating that the problem was not new.
But the police defended themselves, saying they had swept a distance of 48 kilometres along the Malaysia-Thai border, although admitting that they could have focused on the wrong area.
“We focused on the people smuggling routes,” deputy national police chief Noor Rashid Ibrahim said. “Normally, smuggling routes are areas which are accessible, where people can walk to.
“That’s why we didn’t go to the top of the hill.”
He said the police only decided to “comb every inch of our land” after Thailand found mass graves in early May.
Ibrahim argued that signs from the camps, along with wooden sticks used to build structures and the clothes used to wrap the bodies, still appeared new, suggesting that the camps had not been around for long.
But human rights groups said they began passing information about the camps to authorities years ago but no action was taken, according to anti-trafficking expert Matthew Friedman, the former regional head of the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking.
Officials have now begun the grisly task of exhuming bodies from the 139 grave sites. Four have been found so far, minister Wan Junaidi said.
He also said indications so far were that each single grave site only contained one body based on the size of the site and how it was marked with sticks and stones. Officials said previously the grave sites might have contained multiple bodies.
“It’s one person, one grave,” he said. “It’s a proper burial ground, like a graveyard, not mass graves.”
The Guardian visited one of the camps in the jungle on Tuesday, and saw first hand indications of the horrific abuse meted out to the migrants.
At the camp, which is reached after a two-hour hike up a steep jungle path, there was a watchtower, cages and a large wooden enclosure wrapped in barbed wire. It is believed that the camp had been abandoned only recently.
The massive scale and sophistication of the camp, which could hold up to 500 people, police said, suggested machinery could have been used in building it and that it had a certain degree of permanence, raising further questions over failure to detect it.
Many Rohingya, a Muslim minority persecuted in Burma, and Bangladeshis, normally trying to escape grinding poverty in their homeland, reach the jungle camps after harrowing journeys on overcrowded boats.
They are dumped there by people smugglers and held in pitiful conditions until their families can pay ransoms for their release, after which they normally seek work in Malaysia, where they are quietly welcomed as a source of cheap labour.
Malaysia is currently listed at tier 3 in the US State Department’s annual human-trafficking report, the lowest tier for countries which are failing to stop the illicit trade.
A report in 2009 by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which was based on a year-long review, found that “a few thousand” Burmese migrants had become victims of extortion and trafficking once they were deported across Malaysia’s border with Thailand.
In addition, it said there were questions about the level of participation of government officials in Malaysia and Thailand.