BANGKOK (AlertNet) - Human Rights Watch has urged the Thai government to halt an “inhumane” plan to deport 73 stateless Muslim Rohingya back to Myanmar where communal violence has left tens of thousands of Rohingya displaced.
A boat carrying the Rohingya, including women and children as young as three, was found adrift off the Thai holiday island of Phuket on Jan 1. The Bangkok Post said many had gone without food and water for at least two days.
The Thai authorities initially planned to push them back to sea towards Malaysia. But after finding the boat unseaworthy and many passengers too weak to endure the voyage, they decided to send them back to Myanmar, where Rohingya are not recognised as citizens, Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Wednesday.
Thailand’s policy of not accepting the Rohingya, but helping them reach a third destination not only fails to protect them as required by international law but also increases the risks to them in some cases, said the New York-based rights group.
“This ‘soft deportation’ process has resulted in Rohingya being sent across the Thai-Burma border at Ranong province, where people smugglers await deported Rohingya to exact exorbitant fees to transport them to Malaysia,” the statement said, referring to Myanmar by its former name.
“Those unable to pay the smuggling fees are forced into labour to pay off the fees, condemning them to situations amounting to human trafficking,” it added.
Human Rights Watch is asking Thailand to allow the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, to access such boats to determine whether those on board are seeking asylum and whether they qualify for refugee status.
WOMEN TAKING TO BOATS
Some 800,000 Rohingya live in Myanmar's northern Rakhine State under severe government restrictions. Rights groups say they are deprived of free movement, education and employment, and suffer some of the worst discrimination in the world.
The Burmese view them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh who deserve neither rights nor sympathy.
Longstanding tensions between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya turned violent in early June and again in October, killing at least 160 people and displacing more than 110,000 – mostly Muslims.
A Reuters investigation found the wave of attacks was organised and led by Rakhine nationalists tied to a powerful political party in the state, incited by Buddhist monks and, some witnesses said, abetted at times by local security forces.
Phuket Wan, a local news outlet which first reported on the latest Rohingya boat, expressed shock at seeing children and women on the perilous journey for the first time.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group, told AlertNet, “Women on these boats are very rare. But that seems to be the trend now.”
“More than 10,000 Rohingya from northern Rakhine State have left on these boats since October last year according to our findings,” she said. That figure does not include Rohingya who have fled from the state capital Sittwe, she added.
In December, the Malaysian authorities allowed 40 boat people from Myanmar into the country after Singapore refused their entry despite an appeal by the UNHCR. Their vessel had sunk in the Bay of Bengal, and was rescued by a Vietnamese cargo ship.