Malaysian authorities said on Monday they had discovered 139 suspected migrant graves in 28 people smuggling camps around villages and in jungle on the border with Thailand.
Ammunition was found in the vicinity and there were signs that torture had been used, said police. Metal chains were found near some graves, reported Reuters. Photographs taken of the camps showed pens built from wooden sticks that were believed to have been used as cages, reported the Associated Press.
The graves were discovered as part of an operation between May 11 and 23 in the northern state of Perlis, but the Malaysian government did not initially make the discoveries public as police continued investigations. They are close to the site on the Thai side of the border where the remains of 30 people were found in early May.
That figure could be dwarfed by the discoveries made by Malaysian police. The country's police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said on Monday that the 139 graves could contain more than one body each, reported the BBC, and that the biggest of the discovered camps could have held up to 300 people.
The graves would now be exhumed to confirm whether the bodies were victims of human trafficking, he said. Police believe some of the camps were abandoned as little as two weeks ago, reported the Guardian, because they found leftover food and cooking utensils.
"The first team of our officers has arrived in the area this morning to exhume the bodies," said Khalid at a press conference in the nearby town of Wang Kelian. "We will find out who caused this definitely. We will not condone anybody who is involved, including Malaysian officials." It was "very sad scene," he said. "We were shocked by the cruelty."
"I am deeply concerned with graves found on Malaysian soil purportedly connected to people smuggling," The Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak said in a statement released through his Facebook page. "We will find those responsible."
Khalid told reporters that investigations had been running since the arrests of 37 suspected people smugglers, including two police officers, earlier this year. Information gathered during those arrests led to the discovery of the graves, sparking a crackdown on people smuggling routes in Thailand.
The crackdown triggered the current migrant crisis in Southeast Asia, as smugglers were forced to try to move people by sea instead — but then left thousands abandoned in boats before they reached shore with nearby countries refusing to take them in.
At least 7,000 people, mostly from the persecuted Rohingya ethnic minority of Myanmar, or economic migrants from Bangladesh, were left stranded at sea on the seas and rejected by both Malaysia and Indonesia until the two countries bowed to international pressure and agreed last week to allow them on shore. Authorities said migrants would be able to stay for one year, after which permanent resettlement solutions for them must be found.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said last Friday that an estimated 3,500 migrants were still stranded on overloaded vessels with supplies running out, and again called on the region's governments to rescue them. It estimates more than 87,000 migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshis, left their countries for Malaysia and Indonesia between January 2014 and the end of March this year.
The recent discoveries raise more questions about the alleged complicity of government officials with the people smuggling networks, as both the Thai and the Malaysian camp and grave sites are located in an area with a heavy police presence. A 2009 report for the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate alleged that Malaysian officials worked in conjunction with human traffickers.
"Burmese migrants in Malaysia, often regardless of whether they possess UNHCR identification, are arrested and placed in detention facilities," it said. "The committee has reports of individual refugees UNHCR official documentation being destroyed by Malaysian officials at the time of arrest or later."
Testimony given to researchers for the committee gave an insight into how the people smuggling camps operated. Migrants from Burma told the committee they were "transported to the border by Malaysian Government officials using Malaysian Immigration Department vehicles. Arriving at the border between 1:00 and 3:00 am, they were handed over to human traffickers, operating from the Thai side of the border." They were then kept in captivity and often beaten and sexually abused. "The traffickers would then allow the refugees opportunity to contact someone in Malaysia who could pay a ransom of 1500-1900 ringgit [Malaysian currency] ($470 to $600), per person. Those able to pay were smuggled back into Malaysia and released," it said.
While the report concluded that migrants who could not raise the ransom money were sold into slavery, either to fishing boats or brothels, the discovery of mass graves indicates that many do not make it out of the camps at all.
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