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Rohingya of all ages are now being held as detainees in Thailand

Fears of Boatpeople Deaths in Custody

Monday, February 11, 2013
PHUKET: Concern is growing about the large number of Rohingya boatpeople being held in a crowded detention centre north of Phuket.

A total of 295 men and boys are still being held at the Phang Nga Immigration Centre, a spokesperson confirmed by telephone today.

It's understood that detainees are being kept in a space where they can squat but immediately come into contact with others if they stretch out.

Two teenage Rohingya died in custody in Thailand in 2009 and three more deaths were reported in 2011 among Rohingya detained in Thailand for long periods in cramped conditions.

Late last year, Phuketwan was told that 112 newly-arrived boatpeople had been sent straight on from the Phang Nga Immigration Centre to a border detention centre because the Phang Nga centre did not have room for that number of detainees.

One group of 93 boatpeople currently being held in the centre smuggled out a petition eight days ago, written on part of a white t-shirt, pleading for help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Thai Government.

The petition said that 42 people in the group were already registered as refugees. ''We want to meet UNHCR,'' it says. ''We demand UNHCR.''

Most of the boatpeople who have recently arrived on Thailand's Andaman coast north and south of Phuket have come from the troubled Burmese township of Sittwe. The petitioners departed on a boat from Cox's Bazaar, in Bangladesh, near the Burma border.

Representatives of the UNHCR are in the process of visiting centres around Thailand where hundreds of Rohingya are being held, UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan said today.

She said the UNHCR was talking to groups of people about why they had left Burma or Bangladesh and what conditions were like in detention in Thailand.

''We will collate the findings and make recommendations to the Thai Government,'' Ms Tan said. She said that UNHCR representatives had also raised the situation of the Rohingya with Burmese government officials inside Burma.

Rohingya apprehended on arriving boats through January and hundreds more released from captivity in camps allegedly run by people smugglers along the Thai-Malaysia border are now being held in detention centres all over Thailand. A tally puts the total at 1752 in 17 spots.

Conditions vary from good, as is the case of 72 women and children being held at a family refuge in Phang Nga, to unacceptably cramped, as at the centre in Phang Nga where the Rohingya men are being kept.

One of the main complains so far from the Rohingya has been about splitting families into camps for men and for women and children.

The Thai Government has undertaken to hold the Rohingya for six months to allow their situation to be assessed. However, suggestions that permanent camps could be set up in Thailand for Rohingya fleeing persecution in Burma have been dismissed.

Independent evidence that Rohingya boats have for the first time this ''sailing season'' contained women and children emerged when a flimsy vessel was apprehended off Phuket on January 1.

A senior officer with the Army's Internal Security Operations Command, which oversees the interception of the Rohingya boats, confirmed that women and children are now being found frequently on vessels.

Through January, a series of boats containing women and children - including one on which a mother gave birth - were brought to shore in Thailand, apparently for humanitarian reasons.

However, it's now understood that all boats encountered by the Royal Thai Navy are being ''helped on,'' with extra food and water provided, even if they have women and children on board.

At one point in January, an exodus appeared to be underway with as many as two boats a day putting to sea from Burma.

Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project activist group, has logged departures from Cox's Bazaar and northern Burma for years. She says the 19,500 recent passengers on boats - most of them since this ''sailing season'' began in October - far exceed previous numbers and represent a major exodus from Burma by sea.

''We also believe there have been at least another 3000 people leaving on boats from Sittwe, where conditions are extremely harsh,'' she said.

''Being precise about boat departures or the situation of Rohingya around Sittwe at present remains difficult.''

The vast number of departing boats appears to have now slowed with the realisation that people apprehended in Thailand are likely to be held for at least six months.

Brokers are also believed to have become concerned after raids that apprehended hundreds of stateless Rohingya from the Thai-Malaysia border camps.

Only one boat is believed to have departed northern Burma since January 30, when previously boats were leaving as often as twice a day.

However, two boats are reported to have left the Sittwe region - with the blessing of Burmese border police - on Friday.

Boatpeople from around Sittwe say life remains unbearable there with corralled families denied health care, sufficient food and the ability to work.

Burma's continuing ethnic cleansing is likely to push hundreds more Rohingya onto boats even though at least one in five vessels is reckoned to be lost at sea.

Most of the boatpeople appear to be hoping for a new life in Malaysia and are content to pay traffickers to achieve that aim.

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