With his bullet-proof vest, shotgun and sunglasses, Kompat Sompaorat could be mistaken for a member of a SWAT team. He actually belongs to a group of Thai civilians tracking down human traffickers on one of Asia's busiest smuggling routes.

human trafficking thailand
Kompat Sompaorat (L) joins other armed volunteers patrolling on their boat in Phang Nga provinceAmy Sawitta Lefevre/Reuters

The volunteers – mainly fishermen and other villagers – patrol the estuaries and jungles of Phang Nga province, a popular tourist destination in southern Thailand a short drive from the famous resort island of Phuket.

They are motivated by humanitarian concerns, but also worry that the presence of armed smugglers and impoverished refugees could lead to an increase in crime and scare away tourists.

They said they had yet to catch any smugglers or traffickers. But they have discovered more than 220 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis over the past three months and handed them over to immigration police.

"There are big big guys behind this trade - so big we can't do anything about it. We can't touch them," said Kompat, as the volunteers arrive at an abandoned smuggling camp near the village of Ban Bang Yai strewn with children's shoes, women's camisoles and trash. "We can only try to save their victims," he said.

human trafficking thailand
Armed volunteers patrol one of Asia's busiest smuggling routesAmy Sawitta Lefevre/Reuters
human trafficking thailand
A volunteer shows a child's shoe found in an abandoned smuggling camp in Phang Nga provinceAmy Sawitta Lefevre/Reuters

Every year, thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshi boat people arrive in Thailand, brought by human traffickers. They are then taken by road to desolate camps, where traffickers demand a ransom to smuggle them south across the border to Malaysia.

Despite pledges by Thailand's military junta to combat human trafficking, the volunteers say the influx of illegal migrants is growing, many of them Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar, and little is being done to stop the gangs that transport and abuse them.

Last October, more than 130 suspected trafficking victims, mostly Bangladeshis, were found dumped by traffickers in a remote coastal area of Phang Nga. Many of them had been abducted or tricked onto prison ships in the Bay of Bengal where conditions resembled the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade.

human trafficking thailand
Afsar Miae (2nd R), 20, of Bangladesh, who was held captive on a ship before being abandoned on a remote island, prays with other suspected victims of human trafficking at a government shelter in Takua Pa on 17 October, 2014Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
human trafficking thailand
Muhammed Ariful Islam, 22, a painter from Dhaka who was held captive on a ship before being abandoned on a remote island, cries at a government shelter in Takua Pa district of Phang Nga in Thailand, on 17 October, 2014Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
human trafficking thailand
Suspected victims of human trafficking are seen at a government shelter in Takua Pa on 17 October, 2014Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Last year Thailand was downgraded to the lowest tier on the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which ranks countries by their counter-trafficking efforts.

The Thai government, installed after a military coup last May, has vowed to improve its record, and is to submit a progress report to the State Department.

human trafficking thailand
Police major general Thatchai Pitaneelaboot listens as a Rohingya trafficking victim leads a police unit to a camp where he was detained in Satun, southern Thailand, on 27 March, 2014Andrew RC Marshall/Reuters
human trafficking thailand
Police major general Thatchai Pitaneelaboot (2nd R) stands at an abandoned trafficking camp in a remote rubber plantation in Songkhla, southern Thailand, on 23 February, 2014Damir Sagolj/Reuters
human trafficking thailand
Rohingya people from Myanmar, who were rescued from human traffickers, are kept in a cell at the Songkhla Immigration Detention Centre, on 13 February, 2014Damir Sagolj/Reuters
human trafficking thailand
Akram, an 18-year-old Rohingya man who cannot walk and whose body is pocked with fly-blown sores from months of immobility, rests on a makeshift bed at a mosque near Songkhla, close to Thailand's border with Malaysia, on 12 February, 2014Damir Sagolj/Reuters
human trafficking thailand
Men claiming to be from Bangladesh react from inside a communal cell at Songkhla Immigration Detention Centre, where they were being kept with some Myanmar Rohingya people also rescued from human traffickers, on 12 February, 2014Damir Sagolj/Reuters

The Bangkok-based Fortify Rights group said it was "very concerning" that armed volunteers were taking on the traffickers. "Clearly it's an indication that authorities are not fulfilling their duty to combat trafficking," Matthew Smith, the group's executive director, said.