By Nopporn Wong-Anan
SUKSAMRAN, Thailand (Reuters) - Survivors of a humansmuggling tragedy in Thailand, in which 54 people suffocated ina locked container truck, will be deported back to army-ruledMyanmar, a Thai court ruled on Friday.
Fifty survivors were fined up to 2,000 baht (31 pounds)each for being in the country illegally, but most could not payand faced a brief jail term before being deported, officialssaid.
Another 14 youths were sent to an immigration centre toawait their return to the former Burma.
Human rights groups condemned the ruling.
"Rather than encourage their participation in the legalprosecution of exploitative smugglers, the Thai authoritieswill instead summarily deport them to Burma," the MigrantWorking Group, a coalition of NGOs, said in a statement.
The horrific deaths of the 54, who were among 120 peoplecrammed into a stifling hot 20-ft container for several hours,has focused attention on migrant labour and the scourge oftraffickers and smugglers in the region.
The Migrant Working Group said it documented 10 cases inwhich more than 100 people had died being transported toThailand in the past year.
The driver of the container truck, identified by police asSuchon Boonplong, has eluded a manhunt since he abandoned thevehicle late on Wednesday.
"Police from various units are looking for Suchon and otherpeople involved in the trafficking ring," Police Major-GeneralApirak Hongthong told reporters.
Both men will be charged with conspiracy to hide, help orsmuggle illegal aliens into Thailand, and for careless actionscausing death, police said.
If convicted, they face a maximum 10 years in jail.
Survivors said they pounded on the sides and screamed atthe driver as the air grew thinner after the air conditioningsystem broke down.
"We contacted the driver using a mobile phone, but he toldus in Burmese to keep quiet and make no trouble," Tida Toy, 21,told the Bangkok Post newspaper.
"He switched off the phone and drove on," she said.
DESPERATE FOR WORK
About 2 million migrants from across the region are workingin Thailand, most of them fleeing the former Burma where 46years of army misrule have crippled a once-promising economy.
Only 500,000 migrants are in the country legally, a LabourMinistry official told Channel 9 television.
Under Thai law, registered migrants have the same rights asThais, but in practice this is far from the case. They areroutinely denied access to such basic rights as education,medical care and freedom of movement.
The vast majority of migrants are unregistered and workillegally in factories, restaurants, at petrol pumps and asdomestic helpers or crew on fishing trawlers.
Many migrants, both legal and illegal, suffer abuse, theInternational Labour Organization (ILO) said.
Its research found 75 percent of Thai employers interviewedbelieved it was okay to lock up migrant workers so they"couldn't escape". There is also evidence of forced and childlabour involving migrants, it said.
Bangkok was "obliged to prevent the exploitation of thosemigrants in Thailand, regardless of the documentation they mayor may not have", ILO East Asia Director Bill Salter said.
The Asian Human Rights Commission worried Thailand woulduse the tragedy as a pretext to crack down on migrantlabourers, who often do jobs Thais will not.
"These people are propping up their country's economy, andthus doing their part to prevent a much greater catastrophe onThailand's doorstep," it said.
Aye, whose 8-year-old daughter died in the truck, said shecould not provide for her other two children in Myanmar -- a10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son -- if she was unable towork in Thailand.
"I am very worried about my future. What will happen to mytwo children at home? I can't afford to live at home. There isnothing for me to do there," she told Reuters from her jailcell.
(Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Jerry Norton)