Malaysian police forensic teams began pulling bodies out of shallow graves on Tuesday at abandoned jungle camps where authorities believe hundreds of human trafficking victims could be buried.
The government in Kuala Lumpur said it was investigating whether local forestry officials were involved with the people-smuggling gangs believed responsible for 139 such graves discovered around camps along the country’s border with Thailand.
Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said in a news briefing in Geneva that it's representative in the region "predicts hundreds more (bodies) will be found in the days to come".
The dense forests of southern Thailand and northern Malaysia have been a major stop-off point for smugglers bringing people to Southeast Asia by boat from Myanmar — most of them Rohingya Muslims who say they are fleeing persecution — and Bangladesh.
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims are ferried by traffickers through southern Thailand each year, it is believed, and in recent years it has been common for them to be held in remote camps along the border with Malaysia until a ransom is paid for their freedom.
The grisly discoveries in Malaysia followed the uncovering of similar graves on the Thai side of the border at the beginning of May. That find led to a crackdown on the camps by Thai authorities, after which traffickers abandoned thousands of migrants in overloaded boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
"We don't know if there is a link between the Thai camps and Malaysia camps," Phuttichart Ekachan, deputy chief of Thailand's Provincial Police Region 9, told Reuters.
State news agency Bernama quoted Malaysia's police chief, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar, as saying that the camps were thought to have been occupied since 2013, and two were "only abandoned between two and three weeks ago".
The scale of the discoveries has raised questions about the level of complicity by officials on both sides of the border.
Malaysia's Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Tuesday that initial investigations revealed links between forest rangers and smuggling syndicates, Bernama reported.
"We suspect some of them were involved...but we are working with the forestry department in terms of enforcement as they are supposed to carry out enforcement in the area," he was quoted as telling reporters.
Apparently abandoned in haste, what remained of the camp visited by Reuters reporters was little more than a tangle of bamboo and tarpaulin, but one police official, who did not want to be identified, said it could have held up to 400 people.
A large plastic water tank could be seen, suggesting a degree of permanence.
There were also signs of brutality, including coils of barbed wire around what appeared to have been makeshift cells and a low cage, too small to stand in, that police said may have been used to punish captives.
An official said 37 graves had been found at the site, a few hundred meters from the Thai border. As the police teams began to dig, a large supply of body bags and white cotton shrouds was piled on the ground.
Residents in Wang Kelian, the nearest town on the Malaysian side of the border, said they were used to seeing migrants in the area.
"They are often starving, [having] not eaten for weeks," said Abdul Rahman Mahmud, who runs a small hostel. "They eat seeds or leaves or whatever they can find. It's a real pity and it's sad to see this."