An international refugee advocacy group has called on the Thai government to halt the army’s secret practice of detaining boatpeople on an Andaman Sea island, before towing them into international waters.
The controversial treatment of Rohingya refugees, which was revealed in Monday’s South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583, announcements, news) , was described by Washington-based Refugees International as a contravention of international standards and law. The Muslim people hail from the border areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
“The Thai government is taking highly vulnerable people and risking their lives for political gain,” advocate Sean Garcia said. “It should be engaging the Burmese [Myanmese] government on improving conditions at home for the Rohingya if it wants to stem these flows. The Rohingya will continue to make the journey because they have no hope for a better life in Burma. Pushing them back out to sea is not an effective deterrent – it just jeopardises lives.”
The army has denied taking custody of the Rohingya, but Ranong’s provincial governor, Wanchart Wongchaichana, and navy, police and marine police sources, say that a policy was implemented to hand over all of the boatpeople to the army, instead of immigration authorities.
Local sources involved in the process said the Rohingya, who have been arriving on the Thai west coast in the hundreds, are secretly detained on an island until they are strong enough to be put to sea again, in rowing boats without sails or functioning engines.
In a statement released yesterday, Refugees International said the Thai authorities should, at a minimum, revert to the practice of deporting undocumented migrants.
Thai officials should also ensure that refugees seeking asylum were properly screened and not forced back to their country of origin if it would put them at risk, it said.
Most of the Rohingya begin their journeys from Bangladesh. “The Rohingya are stateless and have no rights inside Burma. The Burmese government targets them for forced labour and extortion, and restricts their movement,” Mr Garcia said.
“The Burmese government’s policy of actively displacing the Rohingya from their homeland means that any refugee who is forced back is subject to arrest and abuse. Until the Rohingya are recognised by Burma as citizens, neighbouring countries like Thailand must protect and assist this vulnerable population.”
The statement said the boatloads of men who have been turning up in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia also included Bangladeshi migrants. “Both groups board boats of varying seaworthiness with the aim of finding security and economic opportunity.”
Yesterday’s criticism by Refugees International came on the same day that rights group Amnesty International accused Thai security forces of engaging in systematic torture including beatings and electric shocks.
Amnesty said the practices had killed at least four people during a campaign to defeat Muslim insurgents in the restive south. Survivors told the group that the most common techniques were beatings and having plastic bags placed over their heads until they nearly suffocated, according to a new report released by the group based in London.
“The insurgents in southern Thailand have engaged in brutal acts, but nothing justifies the security forces’ reliance on torture,” Donna Guest, deputy director of Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific programme, said.
The report drew on testimonies from 34 people allegedly tortured between March 2007 and May last year, and witnesses and victims’ relatives.
The government and military had expressed concern that the Rohingya may join Muslim militants in the south. While acknowledging cases of abuse, regional commander Lieutenant General Pichet Visaijorn said torture was not tolerated and soldiers involved would not be protected.
Additional reporting by Associated Press
Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian on Phuket