GENEVA (Reuters) - An estimated 25,000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis boarded people-smugglers' boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many in the same period of 2014, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday.
"Based on survivor accounts, we estimate that 300 people died at sea in the first quarter of 2015 as a result of starvation, dehydration and abuse by boat crews,” it said in a statement.
Thirty-three bodies, believed to be migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, have been found in shallow graves over the past week in Songkhla province, near the Malaysian border.
Many of the migrants are Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar and from Bangladesh hoping to escape religious and ethnic persecution and work abroad.
The most common smuggling route takes them from Myanmar and Bangladesh to the Ranong area of southern Thailand, followed by a day-long road trip to smugglers' camps towards the border with Malaysia.
“Conditions in the smugglers' camp are horrific. People are held and abused until their relatives pay for their release," the UNHCR said.
"More than half the survivors interviewed by UNHCR since October reported that someone died in the smugglers' camp where they were being held. Beatings are common and there are reports of rapes. Those who try to escape risk being shot."
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said people paid to be smuggled without realising their money would later be extorted by torture, and the trafficking business was so lucrative that children were being abducted and forced onto boats.
Since last October, some smugglers have abandoned onshore camps in Thailand in favour of holding passengers for ransom at sea until they pay to be taken to Malaysia, the statement said.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Andrew Roche)