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A provincial court in southern Thailand has sentenced a man to 35 years in jail for trafficking nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, some of whom died from suffocation.

The provincial court of the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat on Wednesday, 31 August 2016, sentenced Sunon Saengthong, an alleged human trafficker, to 35 years imprisonment and a fine of 666,000 baht, the Migrant Working Group reported.

The court handed one year jail terms to Suriya Yodrak and Warachai Chadathong, Sunon’s collaborators. Suriya’s jail term, however, was halved to six months because he pleaded guilty.

The three were accused of being involved in the trafficking of a group of 98 Rohingya refugees (30 men, 26 women and 42 minors younger than 15 years) on 11 January 2015 from Ranong to Songkhla Province, passing through Hua Sai District. Some of the refugees were found dead from suffocation.

Sunon was convicted of offences under the 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act for trafficking people — including children younger than 15 years of age — and for offences related to enslaving or forcing a person to work. He was also charged with crimes under the 1979 Immigration Act for bringing in, harbouring and providing a hiding place to illegal immigrants.

Sunon’s conviction was attributed to important evidence showing the bank transactions and telephone contacts of a trafficking syndicate, some of whose victims had been rescued in Songkhla.

Suriya and Warachai were convicted only under the Immigration Act for collaborating with Sunon.

Thailand’s Immigration Act does not recognise refugees, even though thousands of refugees and asylum seekers enter Thailand legally and illegally each year. Since the state does not provide any formal recognition or services for refugees, many are forced to go underground and in many cases fall prey to human traffickers.

According to Veerawit Tianchainan, the founder and Executive Director of the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation (TCR), there are thousands of other refugees besides the Rohingya, who have fled war, persecution and poverty and who are now awaiting resettlement in third-party countries. Many stay illegally in Thailand in fear of being arrested by the authorities.

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