Survivors of Smuggling Attempt to Be Jailed in Thailand, Deported After 54 Suffocate in Seafood Truck

More than 50 migrants from Myanmar who survived inside a sweltering truck in which 54 others suffocated while being trafficked to Thailand were found guilty Friday of illegal entry and will be jailed for two months and then deported, Thai officials said.

Fourteen other survivors under the age of 18 were sent home without trial, they said.

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Human traffickers were transporting the 121 migrants inside the locked truck to the Thai resort town of Phuket on Wednesday night, but abandoned the vehicle — normally used for refrigerated seafood — when the cooler failed. Only 67 survived, including two who remained hospitalized Friday.

The truck's owner was detained, but the driver and the trip's organizers were being sought.

Prosperous Thailand is a magnet for people from impoverished neighboring Cambodia, Laos and especially Myanmar, also known as Burma, who take menial and dangerous jobs shunned by Thais. More than 1 million migrants from Myanmar are believed to be working in Thailand, often facing gross exploitation.

"Following voluntary migration to Thailand, men, women, and children, primarily from Burma, are trafficked into involuntary servitude in agricultural work, factories, construction, commercial fisheries, domestic work, and begging," the U.S. State Department said in its 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report.

One of the still-hospitalized survivors said he came with his 19-year-old wife, whom he had married just four days earlier, from Tavoy town in Myanmar's Mon state.

Ko Ko Lah said they paid about 12,000 baht (US$380; euro240) each to a human trafficking gang to arrange the trip and met the other migrants at Myanmar's Victoria Point, just across a bay from Thailand.

They were taken at night by fishing boat to a quiet pier in Ranong town, where they were crammed into the truck's sweltering container area, about 2.2 meters (7 feet) wide and 6 meters (20 feet) long.

"The container was very jammed and dark, my wife and I were trapped in the middle. After about 30 minutes we found that we did not have enough air to breathe and everyone begged for help," he said.

"It was horrible, I heard people screaming, shouting and banging on the walls until I passed out," he said. "I regained consciousness and found that I was lying on the ground, confused. I crawled to the roadside and found some water there to drink."

Ko Ko Lah said he and his wife had hoped to find work on a rubber plantation in Thailand's Phuket or Phang Nga provinces, where three relatives had earlier found jobs.

"I do not know the fate of my wife, but pray that she is still alive," he said.

Others in the group were believed to be seeking jobs in Phuket's booming tourism sector.

The survivors, with the exception of the two still hospitalized, were taken Friday to Ranong provincial court where they were found guilty of illegal entry, said Col. Kraithong Chanthongbai, police chief for Ranong's Suksamran district.

Fourteen in the group under the age of 18 were sent back to Myanmar without trial. The others, unable to pay a 2,000 baht (US$63; euro40) fine, will be jailed for two months before being expelled, he said.

He added the truck's owner, who denied any knowledge of the smuggling, was being held on a charge of conspiring to traffic the migrants.

The International Labor Organization, meanwhile, called on the Thai government to overhaul its system for employing foreign workers.

"While some may characterize this as a tragic accident, or even criminal negligence on the part of the driver of the vehicle in which the people died, it is clear that this occurrence is an indication — indeed a consequence — of a much larger problem," the U.N. agency said in a statement.

It said the demand by Thai employers for migrant workers — documented or undocumented — "is continuing and may even be accelerating. However, the formal systems of recruitment are not working."