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Rohingya detained on then-secret Koh Sai Daeng, first published 2009

More Boatpeople Reported to be Sailing South

Monday, February 21, 2011
MORE boatpeople are reported to be sailing south as doubts are being cast on Thailand's version of how 91 Rohingya who originally landed in Thailand ended up 700 kilometres away in Indian territory.

The boatload of men and boys first landed on the Andaman coast, south of Phuket, before being trucked to Ranong, north of Phuket, and ''deported''.

Human Rights Watch said today that the Thai government should investigate reports that authorities forcibly pushed back to sea the 91 ethnic Rohingyas seeking asylum.

''Thailand's blanket denial that 91 Rohingya deportees were pushed back to sea fails to explain their arrival in the Andaman and Nicobar islands,'' said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

''The Thai government should promptly and impartially investigate which officials were responsible for towing migrants out to sea and cutting them loose. When Thai authorities were caught two years ago pushing Rohingya boats out to sea, the prime minister promised to hold all those involved to account.''

He never did.

In 2009, Phuketwan and the South China Morning Post newspaper made sure the world learned about the first pushbacks. Lies were told then by senior Thai officials until Phuketwan produced photos of Rohingya secretly being held behind barbed wire on Koh Sai Daeng, off the Andaman coast north of Phuket.

Lies have been told regularly since. For example, Phuketwan was told by a colonel in Immigration that a group of detained Rohingya were being well cared for in Ranong. The truth: Two teenagers died in custody, and survivors were bent and incapacitated when they were transferred after months without exercise or sunlight.

If it is established that the 91 men now on the Andaman and Nicobar islands are proven to have been victims of a push back by Thai authorities, Thailand can expect condemnation from human rights bodies as well as India and Indonesia, where survivors from the first notorious pushbacks came ashore after hundreds of others drowned or starved in 2008-2009.

At least five more boats are believed to have left Bangladesh and remain at sea, according to Human Rights Watch.

Since mid-January, three boats of Rohingya are known to have arrived on the Thai coast. The third boat landed on Phuket, with 33 men and boys still being held on Phuket, 35 others in neighboring Phang Nga and the second boatload of 67 in detention in Sogkhla, south of Phuket.

Another boat carrying 129 Rohingya landed in Aceh province of Indonesia on February 16.

That recreates the same regional players as in 2009: Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh, Malaysia, India and Indonesia. No solution to the boatpeople tragedy has been forthcoming since then.

And two years on, that first boatload of Rohingya to be apprehended after exposure of the pushbacks remains in detention in Bangkok. Thailand does not recognise the right of Rohingya to apply for refugee status.

In 2009, New York-based Human Rights Watch added in a media release today, Thai security forces were captured on video towing boats with Rohingyas out to sea, which the government initially denied.

Prime Minister Abhisit later stated in a media interview: ''It's not exactly clear whose work it is. All the authorities say it's not their policy, but I have reason to believe some instances of this happened, but if I can have the evidence as to who exactly did this I will certainly bring them to account.''

Two years on, like the incarcerated boatload of Rohingya, we are still waiting.

The Human Rights Watch release continues:

Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. While Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation of ''nonrefoulement'' - not to return anyone to a country where their life or freedom is at risk.

Each year hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Burma's northern Arakan state flee repression by the Burmese military government and dire poverty. Boatloads of Rohingya men and boys pay to be smuggled to Malaysia from Burma and neighboring Bangladesh, often on decrepit boats.

About 200,000 Rohingya refugees live in Bangladesh, many in squalid conditions in official and makeshift refugee camps. Because Bangladesh authorities do not give unregistered Rohingya official resident or work papers, they live in fear of arrest, long-term detention, and possible repatriation to Burma.

Burmese authorities have systematically persecuted the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, for more than 30 years. Government and military authorities in Arakan state regularly apply severe restrictions on Rohingya's freedom of movement, assembly and association, levy demands for forced labor, engage in religious persecution, and confiscate land and resources. The Burmese government refuses to recognise Rohingya as citizens, leaving them stateless.

''The plight of the Rohingya begins with the Burmese government's brutal violations of their basic rights and frequently extends to the countries where they flee,'' Adams said. ''Burma's neighbors in Asean seeking a solution to the Rohingya problem should start by forcefully demanding that the Burmese government immediately end its discrimination and abuse of the Rohingya.''

Human Rights Watch said that governments in the region should ensure that their laws and procedures recognise the protection needs of stateless people as well as refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has the technical expertise to screen for refugee status and the mandate to protect refugees and stateless persons.

The UN agency should be granted immediate and unhindered access to all boat arrivals of Rohingya in Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia and India, Human Rights Watch said. Some boats landing in Thailand have, at times, carried both Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals pretending to be Rohingya.

Effective UNHCR screening would help the governments throughout the region separate genuine refugee claims by Rohingya from other claims.

''Refugee screening is the first step in protecting Rohingya asylum seekers,'' Adams said. ''Until then, the governments of Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia should halt forcible returns of Rohingya.

But a comprehensive solution requires the rights of the Rohingya to be respected in their homeland in Burma.''

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