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Thailand’s Rohingya ‘deterrence’ breaks refugee obligations

May 27, 2009 (DVB), Thailand's denial of entry to Burmese Rohingya refugees violates international legal obligations towards asylum seekers, claims the first full report into the mistreatment of Rohingya refugees in Thailand.

International outrage was sparked in January this year when photographs emerged of Thailand's treatment of the Rohingya 'boat people', the majority of whom had fled Burma's western Arakan state and sailed to Thailand.

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, don't have a citizenship of any country, and thousands are believed to have left Burma, many in the direction of Thailand's southern coast.

According to the report released yesterday by Human Rights Watch, Rohingyas arriving on the Thai coast have been held on isolated islands with limited access from staff at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Steadily increasing numbers of Rohingya arriving in southern Thailand have sparked a deterrence policy that violates Thailand's international legal obligations towards asylum seekers," said the report, entitled Perilous Plight.

Thai authorities were found to have towed Rohingya boats back to sea with little supplies, a move which is in violation of international laws on refugees.

"Any refugees or migrant workers actually entering the country can't be immediately dragged back to the sea; they have to be processed by the law and dealt with accordingly," said David Mathieson, Burma consultant at Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this year, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva acknowledged the towing of Rohingya refugees out to open sea, following denial from a navy chief that the allegations "were even possible".

He added that it wasn't in line with the authorities' policy and that those responsible would be brought to account if enough evidence was found.

"Most Rohingyas see Thailand as a transit point, they don't want to stay in Thailand; they want to go to Malaysia," said Mathieson.

Thailand has reportedly claimed the Rohingyas are economic refugees, and a threat to national security.

Proposals to set up temporary holding centres have been dismissed, and they remain unrecognised as refugees, asylum seekers or undocumented migrants.

"There are actually very low numbers of Rohingya in Thailand as far as we know compared to other nationalities from Burma," said Mathieson.

"Some people say that there's 20,000 Rohingya in Thailand but I would say it is significantly less than that, just a few thousand."

Burma has repeatedly claimed the Rohingya are originally from Bangladesh, not Burma, and have denied them citizenship or status as an ethnic minority.

Most of the Rohingyas in Arakan state rely on international aid organisations for survival.

Reporting by Rosalie Smith


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