Chittagong, Bangladesh: The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) today called on Thai authorities to give United Nations refugee agencies unhindered access to Rohingya boat migrants, so that they can ascertain whether or not they are asylum seekers and if they are eligible for refugee status,” according to a AIPMC statement.
Rohingya boat people near Bon Island in Phuket province
“Thai authorities should suspend plans to deport at least 73 Rohingya migrants back to Burma.”
“Thailand has a history of mistreatment of Rohingya refugees, and their push-back, or ‘help on’ policy is clearly not in keeping with international human rights standards. Thailand must not send any Rohingya back to Myanmar until the UN refugee agency has had an opportunity to interview them and ascertain their refugee status,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, AIPMC Vice President.
Malaysian authorities regularly give UNHCR access to incoming Rohingya migrants and those screened and designated as qualifying for refugee status are released from immigration detention, the statement said.
But, Thai authorities have detained some 73 Rohingya migrants – including 14 women and 16 children, some as young as 3 – after their boat was deemed not to be seaworthy and many of the passengers were too weak to endure a long journey to Malaysia’s Langkawi Island. Thailand says it intends to return them to Burma, where they are also denied citizenship and are likely to suffer under harsh treatment from the Burmese authorities, who accuse Rohingya of being illegal immigrants and have a history of abuse of the Muslim minority.
Rohingya Boat people and Thai authority near Bon Island in Phuket province
“As a member of ASEAN, Thailand has a duty to safeguard the human rights of any people in its territory, including illegal immigrants who may be asylum seekers. Sending these Rohingya back to Myanmar is likely to put them at increased risk of rights abuses, including falling prey to unscrupulous human traffickers who prey on the destitute and desperate,” said Eva Kusuma Sundari AIPMC President and Indonesian member of parliament.
“Within ASEAN we are working hard to try and put an end to the curse of human trafficking, and to eradicate modern day human slavery in our region. By forcibly returning these Rohingya asylum seekers, Thailand is inadvertently increasing the likelihood that they will fall into the hands of human traffickers. Instead, the UNHCR are willing, capable and mandated to screen these people and ascertain whether they qualify for refugee status or not. This is the only right step to take in this situation.”
AIPMC also reiterates its concern over reports from southern Thailand that human traffickers, in collaboration with Thai and Malaysian state officers, are exploiting Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Burma as they try to pass from Thailand to Malaysia. Press reports have suggested that hundreds of desperate Rohingya refugees are being held in inhuman conditions by traffickers demanding extortionate amounts to sneak them across the border into Malaysia, where they wish to seek asylum.
Similarly, the Thai government should immediately halt its plan to deport 73 ethnic Rohingya back to Burma, according to Human Rights Watch statement on January 2.
Thai authorities should allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, unhindered access to these and other boat migrants from Burma’s Arakan State to determine whether they are seeking asylum and whether they are qualified for refugee status, the statement said.
On January 1, 2013, near Bon Island in Phuket province, Thai authorities intercepted a boatload of 73 Rohingya migrants – including as many as 20 children, some as young as 3 – that contained likely asylum seekers. After providing food, water, and other supplies to the passengers and refueling the boat, Thai authorities initially planned to push the boat back to sea en route to Malaysia’s Langkawi Island. When they found that the rickety, overcrowded boat had cracks and that many passengers were too weak to endure a stormy sea voyage, the authorities brought the group ashore to the Phuket Immigration Office. By 4 p.m. on January 2, two trucks with all 73 Rohingya were heading to Ranong province for deportation to Burma, the statement mentioned.
Should a boat land on Thai soil or be found to be unsafe, Thai immigration officials will step in to enforce deportation by land. 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. Those unable to pay the smuggling fees are forced into labor to pay off the fees, condemning them to situations amounting to human trafficking.
“Thailand has repeatedly stated its commitment to combat human trafficking, yet by deporting Rohingya into the hands of people smugglers, they are making them vulnerable to trafficking,” Brad Adams, Asia director, Human Rights Watch said.
“This is a humanitarian crisis and there are reports that more and more boats are leaving each day from Rakhine state. This is not just an issue for Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar, but for the whole region and therefore a regional solution must be found to ensure the rights of the Rohingya are protected, both in Myanmar and abroad,” Ms. Sundari said.