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Thailand: Release and Protect Rohingya ‘Boat People’

August 20, 2013
End Inhumane Detention, Family Separation of
1,800 Muslims from Burma

(Bangkok) – Thailand’s government should
release ethnic Rohingya from Burma who are detained under inhumane and unsafe
conditions, and ensure their protection needs are met, Human Rights Watch said
today.

On August 13, 2013, the Thai cabinet
considered a plan to transfer 1,839 Rohingya who have been held in immigration
detention facilities and social welfare shelters across Thailand to refugee
camps on the Thai-Burmese border.

“Some senior Thai officials have recognized
the Rohingya’s plight but they are still considering proposals that would keep
them detained,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Thai government needs to
end the inhumane detention of Rohingya and ensure the United Nations refugee
agency and other international organizations have full access to provide much
needed protection and assistance.”
On August 9, the Thai minister of social
development and human security, Paveena Hongsakula, told the media that the
detention and trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand were serious human rights
issues. Yet at a cabinet meeting four days later she proposed sending them to
refugee camps, a plan that reportedly has the backing of Prime Minister
Yingluck Shinawatra and Foreign Affairs Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul.
Despite the fact that many Rohingya fled “ethnic cleansing” and crimes against
humanity last year in Burma’s Arakan State, the Thai government refuses to
consider Rohingya as refugees.
The Thai authorities have also discussed
proposals to create alternative centers for the Rohingya or expand the capacity
to hold Rohingya at existing immigration detention centers in Songkhla, Ranong,
Prachuab Khiri Kan, and Nongkhai provinces.
Since January, the Thai authorities have
detained 2,055 Rohingya on the grounds that they entered the country illegally,
according to the government. Thailand has separated Rohingya families. Rohingya
men have been sent to various immigration detention centers, while Rohingya
women and children have been held in shelters managed by the Ministry of Social
Development and Human Security.

As documented by Human Rights Watch, Thai and
Rohingya human traffickers have gained access to the government shelters and
sought to lure out Rohingya women and children. For instance, in June,
traffickers who promised to reunite Narunisa, a 25-year-old Rohingya in a
shelter in Phang Nga province, with her husband in Malaysia for a 50,000 baht
(US$1,660) fee, instead raped her repeatedly.

Many immigration detention centers are
severely overcrowded and lack access to medical services and other basic
necessities. Rohingya men are restricted to extremely cramped conditions in
small cells resembling large cages, where they barely have room to sit. Some
suffer from swollen feet and withered leg muscles due to lack of exercise
because they have not been let out of the cells for up to five months. Eight
Rohingya men have died from illness while in detention. Interventions by
international agencies to provide health services, prompted in part by media
exposure and international expressions of concern, have resulted in health
improvements, but many Rohingya still face unacceptable risks to their health
due to poor detention conditions.

“The Thai government should recognize its
punitive detention policy towards the Rohingya is both inhumane and
counterproductive,” Adams said.

Since July, Rohingya men fearful of being sent
back to persecution in Burma or detained indefinitely in Thailand have staged
protests at immigration detention facilities in Songkhla and Phang Nga
provinces. Approximately 208 Rohingya men, women, and children have also
escaped from detention to unknown locations.

The Thai authorities should allow Rohingya to
seek migrant worker status, which would permit them to work and move freely.
Because Burma’s government discriminates against the Rohingya, denying them
Burmese nationality, Thailand should waive the nationality verification program
requirement for migrant worker status.

“The Rohingya have fled horrific abuses in
Burma that would put many at risk were they to return home,” Adams said.
“Instead of sticking them in border camps or immigration lockups, the Thai
government should consider allowing the Rohingya to remain, work, and live
under temporary protection.”

Background: Thai policy not “helping on”

For years, thousands of ethnic Rohingya from
Burma’s Arakan State have set sail to flee persecution by the Burmese
government. The situation significantly worsened following sectarian violence
in Arakan State in June 2012 between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Arakanese,
which displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya from their homes. In October
2012, Arakanese political and religious leaders and state security forces
committed crimes against humanity in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against
the Rohingya. During the so-called “sailing season” between October 2012 and
March 2013, more than 35,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled the country.
International pressure on Thailand to provide temporary protection to Rohingya
arriving on its shores resulted in the current detention policy. Since January,
more than 1,800 Rohingya have been sent to immigration detention centers and
government shelters. However, many thousands more have been intercepted at sea
by Thai officials and either redirected to Malaysia or allegedly handed over to
people smugglers and human traffickers who demand payment to release them and
send them onwards.

Thailand’s misnamed “help on” policy towards
small boats carrying Rohingya has failed to provide Rohingya asylum seekers
with the protections required under international law, and in some cases
significantly increased their risk. Under this policy, the Thai navy intercepts
Rohingya boats that come close to the Thai coast and supposedly provides them
with fuel, food, water, and other supplies on the condition that the boats
continue onward to Malaysia or Indonesia. Instead of helping or providing
protection, the “help on” policy either pushes ill-equipped boats of asylum
seekers onwards at sea, or sees them handed over to people smugglers who
promise to send the Rohingya onwards for a price, and hand over those unable to
pay to human traffickers.
Under the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. While Thailand
is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, under customary international
law the Thai government has an obligation of “non-refoulement” – not to return
anyone to places where their life or freedom would be at risk. In its
“Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of
Asylum Seekers,” the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR) reaffirmed the basic human right to seek asylum and stated
that “[a]s a general rule, asylum seekers should not be detained.” The UNHCR
guidelines also state that detention should not be used as a punitive or
disciplinary measure, or as a means of discouraging refugees from applying for
asylum.
Human Rights Watch urged the Thai government
to work closely with UNHCR, which has the technical expertise to screen for
refugee status and the mandate to protect refugees and stateless people.
Effective UNHCR screening of all Rohingya boat arrivals would help the Thai
government determine who is entitled to refugee status.