SONGKHLA, Thailand (AP) — Thai authorities said Friday that about 700 people from Myanmar's beleaguered Rohingya minority who had entered Thailand illegally were found in two separate raids in the country's south and that they would be sent back to Myanmar.
Police and government officials found 307 Rohingya asylum seekers during a search Friday at a warehouse in Sadao district in Songkhla province, police Maj. Col. Thanusin Duangkaewngam said. On Thursday, nearly 400 Rohingya were found in a raid in the same district.
"The Rohingya said they had voluntarily entered Thailand to travel to a third country," Thanusin said of Friday's raid. "Police will have to expand the investigation to the group of people who brought these Rohingya people in, as it is illegal entry."
Sectarian violence in Myanmar involving the Rohingya has left hundreds dead and many more homeless in recent months.
Thanusin said the refugees found in Friday's raid, including 230 men, 31 women, 22 boys and 24 girls, would be repatriated to Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Human rights activists have called for the Thai government not to deport the Rohingya back to Myanmar, where they face widespread discrimination.
On Thursday, about 50 security officers from a joint military-police task force raided crowded makeshift shelters on a rubber plantation in Sadao district and rescued 397 Rohingya.
There were children and women in the group who appeared to be exhausted and were crammed under the metal-sheet roof, said army Col. Jaran Iamthanon, who led the raid. He said some of the Rohingya attempted to flee by running into the mountains.
Police arrested eight suspects in Thursday's raid who were believed to be traffickers and confiscated a pistol, a sword, 10 mobile phones and a laptop, police Col. Kriskorn Pleetanyawong said. The men — six from Myanmar, including two Rohingya, and two Thais — face charges of bringing in and sheltering illegal immigrants, as well as illegal possession of a gun, he said.
Kriskorn said investigators would question two other suspects, one of whom is a local politician who owned the land on which the migrants were found.
An initial investigation into Thursday's raid showed the refugees had been held at the location for nearly three months while waiting to be sent to Malaysia to work as fishermen. Authorities said the trafficking network sold them for 60,000 to 70,000 baht ($1,975 to $2,304) per person.
It was unclear whether human traffickers were involved with the group in Friday's raid, and police said they were investigating.
The migrants in both raids were being held at police stations across Songkhla province awaiting repatriation to Myanmar.
The United Nations estimates the Rohingya population in Myanmar at 800,000, but the government does not recognize them as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups, and most are denied citizenship.
Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, with darker skin than most people in Myanmar. They are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are heavily discriminated against, but Bangladesh also refuses to accept them as citizens.
Last week, Thai authorities deported back to Myanmar 73 Rohingya who were found adrift on a boat off a Thai resort island.