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Rohingya detainees in Thailand face dire conditions

Looking inside a
crowded immigration detention centre (IDC) Phang Nga Province, southern
Thailand, where 276 Rohingya men are now being kept and where conditions remain
poor. [June 2013] © Contributor/IRIN
HAT YAI, 28 June
2013 (IRIN) – Human rights groups are calling for improved living conditions
for close to 2,000 Rohingya boat people now in detention in Thailand.
“Thailand locks
away Rohingya in heavily overcrowded detention centres when they should be
treating them as asylum seekers who need to be protected,” Phil Robertson,
deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Asia division, told IRIN.

Since January,
1,958 people have been apprehended by Thai authorities as they make their way
to southern Thailand from Myanmar and Bangladesh, often in rickety, overcrowded
boats, after weeks at sea.

Calling them
“illegal immigrants,” authorities have put 1,554 Rohingya men in overcrowded
immigration detention centres (IDCs). Some 404 women and children are being
held in government-run shelters where, according to HRW, reports of trafficking
are emerging.

Most claim to be
Rohingya – a de jure stateless, linguistic and religious minority group that
has long faced persecution in Myanmar – fleeing the sectarian violence in
Myanmar’s western Rakhine State. The violence there, between the Buddhist
ethnic Rakhine and the Muslim Rohingya, has been going on for over year.

Since March,
according to National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, four male detainees
have died of septicaemia while in detention.

Unacceptable
conditions

The UN Refugee
Agency (UNHCR), which has had access to the detainees since January, says the
cramped living conditions are a source of concern.

“These IDCs were
not designed to accommodate so many people for long periods of time.
Overcrowding and movement restrictions can lead to physical and psychological
problems for these groups that have already faced trauma in their villages and
on the long journey here,” Vivian Tan, an agency spokeswoman, said.

Thai officials say
that new quarters for the detainees are in the development stages, including a
facility in the southern province of Songkla.

“I know [the men’s
detention centres] are very crowded places, and that’s why we are going to
build a new centre for them to stay, which will be considered a waiting place,”
said Lt Gen Paradorn Pattanatabut, secretary-general of the National Security
Council.

The new centre was
initially slated for construction near a former Thai army base in Thailand’s
southern Nakhon Sri Thammarat Province, but those plans were put on hold
following protests by local communities, who said the centre would be too close
to schools and villages.

In the south, local
Muslim civil society groups are providing food and meals for the men being
held. Muslim women prepare meal packages containing rice, fish and curry for
the men at the nearby Dan Nok IDC in Songkla.

Head volunteer Fateemoh
Kaewsalam, from Ban Pru Tiew Muslim Village, was shocked by the crowded
conditions for the male detainees, who are not allowed to go outside.
“Cages”
At the end of May,
international media secretly filmed 276 male detainees in two cells meant to hold
15 people each at an IDC in Phang Nga Province.

“A normal prisoner
can go outside their cells sometime for exercise or [to] work a little bit, but
the Rohingya must stay in the closed quarters because the police say they may
try to escape,” Kaewsalam said.

Thai authorities
have acknowledged that no third country has come forward to offer asylum to
those seeking protection as a “six-month temporary stay” that the government
allowed them in January comes to an end. Under immense international pressure,
the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra agreed in January 2013 to
let these Rohingya stay in Thailand temporarily, until they could be safely
repatriated to their places of origin or resettled in third countries.

“We hope the
relocation can happen soon, as the current situation is not sustainable. We are
also hopeful that the Thai authorities will extend the initial six months of
temporary protection for this group, ensuring that they will not be sent back
to Myanmar given the tense situation in Rakhine state,” said UNHCR’s Tan.

On 26 June, a joint
civil society statement endorsed by 76 organizations worldwide reiterated that
concern, calling on governments of refugee-recipient countries to protect all
refugee and asylum seekers from Myanmar, and to take into account the acute and
specific protection needs of stateless Rohingya.

Governments should
desist from arbitrarily detaining Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers and from
attempting to return them to Myanmar in violation of the principle of non-refoulement,
the statement said.

According to UNHCR,
over the past year, more than 27,000 Rohingya – the majority from Rakhine State
– have embarked on dangerous boat journeys from the Bay of Bengal in search of
safety and stability in other countries. Scores have died in their attempts,
the agency says, while many have endured weeks of drifting at sea with little
food or water. Some were reportedly pushed back from the shores of neighbouring
countries, while others have been detained upon arrival. UNHCR continues to
appeal to governments in the region to keep their doors open to people in need
of international protection.

Source Iran News