(Adds reaction to court ruling)
By Nopporn Wong-Anan
SUKSAMRAN, Thailand, April 11 Survivors of a human smuggling tragedy in Thailand, in which 54 people suffocated in a locked container truck, will be deported back to army-ruled Myanmar, a Thai court ruled on Friday.
Fifty survivors were fined up to 2,000 baht ($62) each for being in the country illegally, but most could not pay and faced a brief jail term before being deported, officials said.
Another 14 youths were sent to an immigration centre to await their return to the former Burma.
Human rights groups condemned the ruling.
"Rather than encourage their participation in the legal prosecution of exploitative smugglers, the Thai authorities will instead summarily deport them to Burma," the Migrant Working Group, a coalition of NGOs, said in a statement.
The horrific deaths of the 54, who were among 120 people crammed into a stifling hot 20-ft container for several hours, has focused attention on migrant labour and the scourge of traffickers and smugglers in the region.
The Migrant Working Group said it documented 10 cases in which more than 100 people had died being transported to Thailand in the past year.
The driver of the container truck, identified by police as Suchon Boonplong, has eluded a manhunt since he abandoned the vehicle late on Wednesday.
"Police from various units are looking for Suchon and other people involved in the trafficking ring," Police Major-General Apirak Hongthong told reporters.
Both men will be charged with conspiracy to hide, help or smuggle illegal aliens into Thailand, and for careless actions causing death, police said.
If convicted, they face a maximum 10 years in jail.
Survivors said they pounded on the sides and screamed at the driver as the air grew thinner after the air conditioning system broke down.
"We contacted the driver using a mobile phone, but he told us 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 working in Thailand, most of them fleeing the former Burma where 46 years of army misrule have crippled a once-promising economy.
Only 500,000 migrants are in the country legally, a Labour Ministry official told Channel 9 television.
Under Thai law, registered migrants have the same rights as Thais, but in practice this is far from the case. They are routinely denied access to such basic rights as education, medical care and freedom of movement.
The vast majority of migrants are unregistered and work illegally in factories, restaurants, at petrol pumps and as domestic helpers or crew on fishing trawlers.
Many migrants, both legal and illegal, suffer abuse, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said.
Its research found 75 percent of Thai employers interviewed believed it was okay to lock up migrant workers so they "couldn't escape". There is also evidence of forced and child labour involving migrants, it said.
Bangkok was "obliged to prevent the exploitation of those migrants in Thailand, regardless of the documentation they may or may not have", ILO East Asia Director Bill Salter said.
The Asian Human Rights Commission worried Thailand would use the tragedy as a pretext to crack down on migrant labourers, who often do jobs Thais will not.
"These people are propping up their country's economy, and thus doing their part to prevent a much greater catastrophe on Thailand's doorstep," it said.
Aye, whose 8-year-old daughter died in the truck, said she could not provide for her other two children in Myanmar -- a 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son -- if she was unable to work in Thailand.
"I am very worried about my future. What will happen to my two children at home? I can't afford to live at home. There is nothing for me to do there," she told Reuters from her jail cell. (Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Jerry Norton)