Rescue workers transport one of the bodies found at an abandoned camp in Thailand's southern Songkhla province on May 1, 2015.

(New York) – The discovery of more than 30 bodies in a human trafficking camp should prompt Thai authorities to authorize an independent, United Nations-assisted investigation, commit to publish its findings, and bring those responsible to justice, including any government officials involved, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN and others, including the United States, that have called for an end to trafficking in Thailand should urgently press the government to end official complicity and willful blindness in rampant trafficking in the country.

On May 1, 2015, a joint military-police taskforce discovered at least 30 bodies at an abandoned human trafficking camp in the Sadao district of Songkhla province close to the Thai-Malaysian border. Many were buried in shallow graves, while others were covered with blankets and clothes and left in the open. Police reports indicate the dead are ethnic Rohingya Muslims from Burma and Bangladesh who starved to death or died of disease while held by traffickers who were awaiting payment of ransoms before smuggling them into Malaysia. Traffickers controlling this camp apparently departed into the mountainous jungle, taking surviving Rohingya with them.

“Trafficking of persons in Thailand has long been out of control, something that senior officials have admitted to Human Rights Watch and others,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The finding of a mass grave at a trafficking camp sadly comes as little surprise. The long involvement of Thai officials in trafficking means that an independent investigation with UN involvement is necessary to uncover the truth and hold those responsible to account.”

For years, human rights organizations and investigative journalists have reported on the thriving human trafficking networks that operate with support and protection from corrupt officials in southern Thailand. Last year, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to the worst possible rating – tier 3 – on its 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, for failing to combat human trafficking.

Rohingya fleeing abuses, persecution, and hardship in Burma’s Arakan State or Bangladesh are often trafficked and abused by networks working with official protection, while in other cases victims simply receive little protection from Thai authorities.

Rohingya who are apprehended in Thailand are treated as “illegal immigrants” subject to deportation without regard to the threats facing them in Burma. Rohingya men are sometimes detained in overcrowded immigration detention facilities across the country, while women and children have been sent to shelters operated by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Many more are believed to be transferred through corrupt arrangements into the hands of human trafficking gangs where they face cruel treatment and no prospect of assistance from Thai authorities.

As with previous Thai governments, the military junta of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha does not permit the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to properly conduct refugee status determination screenings of Rohingya.

“Each year, tens of thousands of Rohingya flee the dire human rights situation in Burma only to be further abused and exploited at the hands of traffickers in Thailand,” Adams said. “The discovery of these mass graves should shock the Thai government into shutting down the trafficking networks that enrich officials but prey on extremely vulnerable people. Instead of sticking Rohingya in border camps or immigration lockups, the government should provide safety and protection.”