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Captive Rohingya women and children are escaping Thailand

Women, Children And Rape Case Trio Flee Rohingya Shelter North of Phuket

Sunday, July 21, 2013
PHUKET: Eighteen women and children fled a government family shelter north of Phuket early today in the clearest evidence yet that Thailand's wait-and-see policy on Rohingya refugees is falling apart.

Among those who chose to go over the wall were a woman and two children who had been pressing a trafficking and rape claim after a previous attempt to escape went wrong.

Today's 2am exodus leaves the shelter that held 72 people in January with just 26 occupants. All the women and children in another family shelter on Phuket fled weeks ago.

While the women and children are free to vote with their feet, the Rohingya men have been held captive in severe conditions, in some cases worse than conditions in Thai prisons.

Four young men were being treated at a Phuket hospital yesterday, Phuketwan has learned, for health problems that left them unable to walk because of cramped conditions in crowded cells at Phuket's Immigration Headquarters in Phuket City.

At least seven men are reported to have died from causes related to their imprisonment at another Immigration centre in Sadao, in the province of Songkhla, according to Amnesty International.

Despair and despondency are driving the Rohingya women and children over the walls of Thailand's family shelters.

Some of them have been misled by traffickers who have infiltrated the shelters, pretending to be translators or do-gooders.

Because the traffickers can speak the Bengali language of the Rohingya while the shelter staff cannot, the traffickers have outwitted the carers by guile.

In some cases, traffickers have arrived at the Phang Nga shelter, north of Phuket, accompanied by local police or by local Muslim community leaders.

A telephone call from shelter staff early today to alert the local police to the escape was not answered. At least one local policeman, now dismissed from the force, has been helping traffickers.

The women and children who went over the wall at the shelter today are unlikely to make it to Malaysia - where husbands and fathers are waiting for most of them - without the help of traffickers.

The traffickers usually ask 60,000 baht for every adult they help to cross the border from Thailand to Malaysia.

Some of the Rohingya women, misled by the real traffickers, have even recently told staff that Phuketwan's news team are traffickers.

The director of the Phang Nga Immigration Centre, Net Kanboon, said: ''Eleven Rohingya broke out from here last week. These people want to finish their journey. Being held in Thailand is just an interruption.''

Dararat Suted, who heads the staff at the Phang Nga shelter - where a nine-months pregnant woman has been among recent escapers - added: ''We have done out best to take care of the women and children. This is a shelter, not a prison.''

Thailand's seaborne military and police arms have been implicated as traders of boatloads of people by Andaman coast residents and by Rohingya on reaching Malaysia as well as by the traffickers themselves.

Following the disclosure in January that Rohingya women and children were for the first time also fleeing repression and ethnic cleansing in Burma, Thailand raided secret trafficking camps along the border, ''rescuing'' hundreds, and apprehended Rohingya boats at sea.

About 2000 Rohingya were placed in family shelters and Immigration centres with the Thai Government giving itself six months to determine the status and future of the captive Rohingya.

That deadline expires on Friday.

Thailand, like other Asean nations and countries seeking closer economic ties with resource-rich Burma, refuses to press Burma to end the ethnic cleansing and to instead grant citizenship and protection to its tormented Rohingya.

With the number of Rohingya fleeing by sea increasing four-fold to about 30,000 in the year since June 2012, even greater numbers are likely to flee during the next safe ''sailing season'' that begins in October.

Although there's a difference between people smugglers and human traffickers, Phuketwan believes the word traffickers is more appropriate to the trade in boatpeople in Thailand.

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