When Social Development and Human Security Minister Pavena Hongsakul visited Rohingya boat people at the immigration detention centre in Phangnga last month, she was appalled by their poor living conditions.
To squeeze more than 200 people in a very small space is inhumane, she said. Since it is the same situation for hundreds of Rohingya boat people at police stations in other provinces, she proposed giving these asylum seekers a more decent temporary shelter by making use of old refugee camps.
Her proposal has been met with silence from the army, the police, provincial and immigration authorities. Given the locals’ resistance due to lack of local consultation, it seems the refugee camp idea is over.
Interestingly, the offer by local Muslim communities to use their mosques as temporary shelters for the Muslim Rohingya boat people has also fallen on deaf ears.
Shortly after Ms Pavena’s visit, the Rohingya detainees at Phangnga staged a mass jail break. Rohingya escapes at other detention centres in different provinces have followed suit on a nearly daily basis.
These escapes cannot happen without help from corrupt officials and the human traffickers could not be happier. They can demand another round of payment from the Rohingya who desperately want to find jobs and meet relatives in other countries. Whether their wish will come true or whether they will be sold to another group of traffickers again is anybody’s guess.
Thailand needs to come up with a humane policy toward the Rohingya boat people which does not benefit human traffickers. Yet, the authorities seem to have taken the opposite approach.
Earlier this week, the immigration and police authorities _ citing lack of space and money to detain the Rohingya _ again requested the green light to deport the Rohingya back to Myanmar.
This policy should not even be considered. To start with, the Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees fleeing violent persecution. They should not have been arrested and jailed in the first place. Deporting them to Myanmar is sending them back to danger, even death, which violates international principles.
The deportation push shows that the police and immigration officials want to return to their old ways. The Rohingya will just be dropped at the borders, to be later bought and exploited by the human traffickers again.
At a recent conference on solutions to the Rohingya problem, the National Human Rights Commission and the Lawyers Council of Thailand proposed a set of policies to the government.
First and foremost, treat them as they are _ refugees or asylum seekers, not illegal migrants. Next, drop the deportation idea. Then allow families to stay together in decent temporary shelters. No more police cells. Verify their identity, residency and needs so they can be treated accordingly. Coordinate with their embassies or home governments for their safe return, if that is what the Rohingya want. Allow the UNHCR to take care of the Rohingya refugees and arrange third-country placement. Get tough with the human-trafficking rackets. And allow local Muslim communities to provide temporary shelter and care for the Rohingya boat people.
The government should heed these measures. It also must pressure Myanmar to stop persecuting the Rohingya and grant them citizenship. If not, Thailand and other Asean countries will continue to shoulder the burdens of Myanmar’s hate crimes.