By Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Thailand has asked Malaysia to help find a group of Rohingya Muslim trafficking victims who absconded from a detention centre in the south of the country, Thai police said on Thursday.
Nineteen Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar escaped from the detention centre in Thailand's southern Songkhla province, around 5 km (3 miles) from the Thai-Malaysian border, early on Wednesday, using a piece of cloth to climb down from a third floor window, police said.
They were part of some 40 Rohingya Muslims, identified as victims of human traffickers, who were intercepted by Thai authorities on their way to Malaysia and had been detained at the centre to await repatriation to Myanmar, police said. Two were found later on Wednesday, police said.
"We've coordinated with Malaysian authorities to help find the remaining 17 who might have escaped into the border areas," Pairat Pookcharoen, deputy commander of an immigration police unit in the south, told Reuters.
Thailand has long been a destination and transit country for men, women and children smuggled and trafficked from poorer, neighbouring countries, including Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. The United States and rights groups have criticised Thai authorities for not doing enough to protect victims of trafficking.
Myanmar regards the Rohingya as illegal migrants, though many trace their roots in the country back for generations, and has confined tens of thousands to sprawling camps in Rakhine state in the west, segregated from the Buddhist Rakhine population since violence swept the area in 2012.
The unrest prompted tens of thousands of Rohingya to flee Myanmar by sea, an exodus that peaked in 2015 when an estimated 25,000 people crossed the Andaman Sea for Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, many drowning in unsafe and overloaded boats.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since a 2017 crackdown by the Myanmar army, according to U.N. agencies. U.N. investigators concluded the crackdown was conducted with "genocidal intent", an accusation that Myanmar rejects.
Although Myanmar authorities say they are ready to receive any who Rohingya who return, refugees have refused to go back for fear of further violence. (Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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