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One section of the Immigration detention centre in Ranong

'Withered' Rohingya Rescued from Ranong

Wednesday, August 19, 2009
A GROUP of Rohingya boatpeople have been evacuated from a Thai detention centre where their poor treatment led to two deaths and an outbreak of severe illness.

The men had been confined without exercise or sunlight for months, with barely room beyond being able to sit or stand, a doctor has told Phuketwan.

Dr Thongchai Keeratihuttayakorn visited the group regularly and became frustrated at not being able to improve the health or conditions of the group.

''They were left inside for such long periods that their muscles began to wither,'' he said today. ''After such a lengthy period without sunshine or exercise, their digestive systems began to break down.''

On Tuesday night, the surviving refugees were transferred to a better detention centre in Bangkok, where conditions are expected to improve their health.

On arrival at the capital's Immigration Detention Centre this morning, the men appeared from television images to be as gaunt as when they landed in Thailand as boatpeople in January.

Some were only able to move crab-like on their haunches and had to be helped to sit. Others looked emaciated.

In January, Phuketwant reporters watched the Rohingya, weak after their perilous voyage, help each other into Ranong Jail to serve short sentences, some still dressed in hospital clothing, having had treatment overnight for severe beatings and burns inflicted by Burmese troops on the journey south.

''Ranong is for short-term stays of a day or two,'' the doctor said.''These men have had to endure extreme conditions for months now.

''Day after day, they saw others come, and then be allowed to go. But for them, there seemed to be no hope.

''This is not a place for genuine refugees. These men would have been better off in the local jail.''

Over the past six months, the chief inspector of Ranong Immigration, Police Lieutenant Colonel Nattarit Pinpak, has said on several occasions that the Rohingya were content and well-cared for at the detention centre.

However, Dr Thongchai, the local Public Health Ministry director, gave a different account. He said today that the men, held captive since January 26, were allowed to exercise for the first time only after the death of the first detainee, 18-year-old Abdul Salam, on June 30.

Dr Thongchai supervised activities at the Public Health centre, where the men were of late taken to exercise just once a week.

But a second young man, Hama Tura, also 18, was found dead in his bed at the detention centre on August 13.

From Friday, upholding Ramandan will impose sunrise to sunset abstinence for the Muslim men.

Officials appear to have decided it is wiser to transfer the group to the Bangkok centre, where for the first time they can exercise every day and will be allowed visitors.

The scandal of the refugees' treatment at the hands of Thai authorities comes as a surprise given the international outrage that greeted the ''push-backs'' orchestrated by the Thai Army, when hundreds of Rohingya were left to die at sea.

Human rights lawyer Nassir Achwarin said: ''The policy of push-backs at sea was bad but detention in Ranong is not much better.

''It's plain now that detention in Ranong endangered the lives of these refugees. We plan to ask Immigration officials why the two young men died.''

Painkillers were usually the only medication offered by Immigration officers to the boatpeople, whatever the extent of their symptoms, he said.

Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which works with Rohingya across the region, said: ''I am delighted that they have been transferred. That's a great improvement.''

Kitty McKinsey, regional spokeswoman for UN refugee agency UNHCR, said the boatpeople would have been in poor health when they arrived in Thailand but the Bangkok centre was much better than the one in Ranong.

''We have two UNHCR officers stationed inside and regular access to people being held there,'' she said.

Twenty-nine of the 76 survivors of the boat voyage are already at the centre, having applied for Bangladeshi citizenship. Another eight Rohingya, arrested separately, are also with the group.

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