PHUKET: Thailand is likely to grant a UN agency access to more than 800 Rohingya who are being held after raids on people trafficking camps in southern Thailand.
A spokesperson in Bangkok for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Vivian Tan, said this afternoon: ''Hopefully we'll get access and we hope to hear back by Friday.''
The UNHCR has sought permission to assess the Rohingya, thought to number 857 men, women and children, who were ''rescued'' in recent raids on secret camps along the Thai-Malaysia border.
Officials in Bangkok have become more positive about granting access with the discovery of an increasing number of Rohingya being intercepted in boats off the Thai coast or in the traffickers' transit camps.
In at least one case this month, Rohingya apprehended in Thailand have been expelled just as officials in Bangkok have been expressing a more positive outlook.
Ms Tan said UNHCR officials had no physical contact on the ground with the Rohingya but she ''certainly hoped'' the Rohingya would not be expelled while talks were underway.
''It's unlikely they would do anything to jeopardise that discussion,'' she said. The UNHCR is talking to officials from Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she said.
A UNHCR finding that the Rohingya were victims of human trafficking or possibly genuine political refugees could change Thailand's outlook towards the Rohingya.
The discovery for the first time of women and children on a boat forced ashore on Phuket on January 1 and families with young children among the captives in the border camps has alarmed aid agencies.
Traditionally, only men and teenage boys have put to sea but the torching of thousands of Rohingya homes in the Burmese state of Rakhine since June has led to unprecedented numbers of women and children also risking the perilous voyage south in search of sanctuary.
Media reports say that some of the Rohingya now awaiting UNHCR assessment in detention in Thailand's Songkhla province claim they are aiming to reach Australia via Malaysia.
The 73 men, women and children apprehended off Phuket on January 1 were quickly trucked back to Ranong, a port on the Thai-Burma border, where the Thai military loaded them onto another boat heading south.
Recent reports say that the Phuket boat families are already in Malaysia, having paid human traffickers again for safe passage.
Sources in the underground trafficking movement tell Phuketwan
that human smugglers vary in quality. Some are relatively reliable. Others - like those who run the Songkhla camps raided in the past few days - are brutal and uncaring.
UNHCR recently reported that 2000 Rohingya has put to sea from Burma and Bangladesh in the first week of 2013, a dramatic escalation in departing numbers.
Two sources in the Thai military said yesterday that nine vessels had been detected as currently being off Phuket and the Andaman coast.
Two boats were reported to have been apprehended, with a decision made to transfer the passengers to shore rather than to apply the ''help on'' policy.
Thai Navy and Marine Police usually provide the Rohingya boatpeople with food and water, fuel and medical assistance if required on condition that the boats do not land in Thailand and sail on to ''a third country'' .
The presence of so many women and children among the thousands of desperate people now embarking on the voyage in open boats appears to have softened attitudes.
However, the issue seems likely to grow among Burma's beleaguered Andaman neighbors until Burma ceases its tacit policy of ethnic cleansing and grants the stateless Rohingya real recognition.
Representatives from one international agency on Phuket last week told Phuketwan
that in their experience across Africa and Asia, there was no more desolate and deprived people in the world.
''Everybody else at least has somewhere to call home,'' one agency representative said.