Thailand Urged to Stop Pushing Refugees Out to Sea
By LAWI WENG
Thursday, January 15, 2009
A refugee rights organization has called on the Thai government to stop stranding Rohingya boat people from western Burma’s Arakan State at sea after apprehending them for illegally entering Thailand.
In a press release issued on Monday, Washington, DC-based Refugees International said the Thai government “should instruct its Army to desist from its new and troubling policy of pushing refugees and migrants intercepted on boats back out to sea.”
According to the group, press reports indicated that there were at least four confirmed deaths and as many as 300 people missing after a boat that had been towed out to sea by the Thai authorities capsized.
One report said that on December 18, the Thai Navy set 412 people adrift on a single boat in international waters north of the island of Koh Surin, off the coast of Thailand.
After 13 days at sea, the Indian Coast Guard rescued 107 survivors of the ordeal near the Andaman Islands.
Thai officials disputed the claim. “Thai immigration office will never send illegal immigrants back to their countries by putting them back in the boat then let them go,” said Police Lieutenant General Chatchawal Suksomjit, commander of the Thailand Immigration Office.
Chris Lewa, an expert on Rohingya issues who interviewed some of the survivors, said that they told her they were forced to get onto the boat at gunpoint and were given just four bags of rice and two tanks of water.
“It’s an outrageous situation. Thailand must stop putting them back in the middle of the sea,” she added.
One survivor from Buthidaung Township, Arakan State, told Lewa that he had left his village with eight people. “Four of my friends are now dead. Our dream was to go to Malaysia,” he said.
A rising tide of Rohingya refugees has been fleeing Burma towards countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Their numbers usually increase after November, when the seas are at their calmest. Last week, more than a hundred people who travelled by boat were arrested by Indonesian authorities in Aceh.
The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim minority who face harsh treatment by the Burmese authorities. They are prohibited from travelling outside Arakan State and are further marginalized by other discriminatory regime laws.
Last September, more than 100 Rohingyas were given six-month prison sentences after they were arrested while traveling to Rangoon in search of work.
Many seek to escape the economic hardship of their restricted lives and turn to brokers to help them find work outside Arakan State. Hundreds put to sea in leaky vessels and head for Malaysia, but many end up on Thailand beaches or drown in the stormy waters of the Andaman Sea.
According to official Thai figures, the number of Rohingyas arrested for illegally entering Thailand has increased steadily in recent years, from 1,225 in 2005-6 to 4,886 in 2007-8. There were 659 Rohingyas seized in eight separate incidents from November 26 to December 25 last year.