The residents of Wang Kelian sensed something was amiss when a number of people stumbled on to their streets, weak and injured, and began to beg for food and water.

“They would walk into my shop, with injuries covering their hands and feet. Some were just too weak to even speak properly,” said Lyza Ibrahim, who runs a food stall in the town on the northern Malaysian border with Thailand.

“One asked me, ‘[Is this] Malaysia?’ Then he pointed in the other direction, said ‘Thailand’ and shook his head to signal that he was not wanted there.”

Wang Kelian is an unassuming settlement but it has been thrust into the global spotlight this week after the discovery in nearby jungle of dozens of secret camps used by people smugglers and nearly 140 grave sites.

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