BANGKOK (AlertNet) – The U.N. refugee agency is struggling to gain access to 790 stateless Rohingya Muslims detained in raids in southern Thailand, amid fears they may be deported back to Myanmar to face persecution and abject conditions.
“UNHCR has asked the Thai authorities for access to recent irregular boat arrivals and people involved in the raids. We have not been granted it yet,” Vivian Tan, the agency’s spokesperson, told AlertNet on Tuesday.
“Ideally we'd like to speak to these groups to find out who they are, where they came from, and if they need international protection.”
UNHCR has also urged the Thai government to treat them humanely and “not to send them back to a place where their lives and freedoms could be in danger,” she added.
A statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow said the Thai government is conferring with international agencies, including UNHCR, to resolve the issue. UNHCR told AlertNet late Tuesday that while there has been progress in talks with the government, they are still awaiting access to the latest group of Rohingya detainees.
More than 600 Rohingya were detained last week in two anti-trafficking raids, but the number had now risen to 790, including 160 children and 30 women, said Lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanathabutr, Secretary General of National Security Council of Thailand.
“(They) will be sent back to their respective countries or to third countries that want to take them as refugees,” he told AlertNet.
The traffickers are both Thai and Rohingya, and the detained Rohingya had hoped to reach Malaysia and Indonesia, he said.
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.
COMMUNAL VIOLENCE FUELS EXODUS
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.
Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group, told AlertNet earlier that more than 10,000 Rohingya have left northern Rakhine State by boat since October 2012, a sharp increase from the previous year.
“What we really want the Thai authorities to do is to give UNHCR access to (the recently-detained Rohingya) so their status can be determined,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
International law requires Thailand not to repatriate persons “who would be at risk of persecution if they’re sent back, and clearly the Rohingya fall into that category,” he added.
The New York-based rights group recently criticised Thailand’s policy of not accepting the Rohingya, but helping them reach a third destination -- saying it not only fails to protect them as required by international law, but also increases the risk of them falling prey to people smugglers.
TRAFFICKING LABEL QUESTIONED
Others question the timing of the raids and the labeling of Rohingya as trafficking victims. Thailand had previously referred to them as illegal economic migrants.
The change suggests the Thai government may intend to use these raids to show they are fighting human trafficking in time for the U.S. government’s report on trafficking due out in July, said Andy Hall, an expert on migrant issues in Thailand.
Thailand has been on a Tier 2 Watch List status – the second-worst rating – for three consecutive years for not fully complying “with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”
A downgrade to Tier 3 – the same level with North Korea - could result in non-tariff sanctions being imposed on Thailand.
“It’s nothing new that there’s been a huge number of people who’ve been using Thailand as a transit point from Rakhine State to Malaysia and onwards,” Hall told AlertNet.
“For the Rohingya to be able to travel in such large numbers generally requires the assistance of Thai, Myanmar or Malaysian brokers,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Pairat Temphairojana)