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Thailand: Protect Rohingya ‘Boat Children’

Most Rohingya boat people are men, but women and children are the most vulnerable.

End
Collusion with Traffickers; Shelter Families

By Human Rights Watch

January 06, 2014
(Bangkok) – Thailand’s
government should urgently send ethnic Rohingya children from 
Burma and
their families to safe and open family shelters. New research documents abuses
by Thai authorities, who should take action against camps in southern Thailand
used for trafficking Rohingya and punish officials complicit in abuse.



As weather
conditions improve, increased numbers of Rohingya, a Muslim minority that is
effectively denied citizenship in Burma, have been crossing to Thailand in often-rickety
boats.  This has included numerous children, many of whom are
unaccompanied by parents.
“Rohingya
children need safe, secure environments after fleeing violence in Burma and
enduring the trauma of difficult journeys,” said Alice
Farmer
, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Yet
Thailand locks up many who reach its shores, leaving them vulnerable to
trafficking and further abuse.”
Thousands
of Rohingya have passed through one of at least three “trafficking camps” in
southern Thailand, where some have been held for ransom or sold to fishing
boats and farms as manual laborers, according to Reuters and other media
reports in December 2013. The reports allege that Thai immigration officials
collaborated with the traffickers by transferring Rohingya held in Thailand to
the custody of the traffickers. A high-ranking police official confirmed to journalists the existence of
the camps and acknowledged an informal policy called “option two,” which relies
on smuggling networks to expel Rohingya migrants, including asylum seekers, from
Thailand. The United Nations has called for an investigation into the
reports Thai immigration officials moved refugees from Burma into human trafficking
rings.
Thailand
has no refugee law and does not allow Rohingya to register asylum claims or to
seek protection as refugees. 
 
The 2,055
Rohingya migrants Thailand permitted to enter the country in 2013 were treated
as “illegal migrants” and did not receive protection as refugees under
international law. The government separated families, holding adult men and some male children,
including unaccompanied boys, in immigration detention centers, and detaining
others, primarily women and younger children, in closed shelters run by the
Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.
 
New Human
Rights Watch research shows that Rohingya held in the Social Development
Ministry shelters and immigration detention centers have had no legal options
for regularizing ,their immigration status and leaving detention. This
prolonged detention with no specified maximum period violates the international
legal prohibition against indefinite detention. Meanwhile, children should
never be detained because of their immigration status.
In recent
months, most Rohingya have escaped from the immigration detention centers and
closed shelters, and gone further south in Thailand with the involvement of
people smugglers and traffickers. Rohingya told journalists that government
officials played a role in these escapes by facilitating contact between the
traffickers and the detainees. Children, particularly older boys, were reported
to be among those trafficked. Since at least October 2013, some Rohingya were
“voluntarily” deported after the government gave them authorization forms in
Thai – which most detainees could not read – without providing effective
translation assistance. Some Rohingya who agreed to voluntary deportation were
not actually returned to Burma but were sold on to traffickers, according to
media reports.
 
Dangers to
children fleeing
Thailand’s
immigration detention centers are squalid and in 2013 were severely
overcrowded. In 2013,eight people died in detention from
apparent poor health conditions exacerbated by extreme heat and lack of access
to health care. Human Rights Watch research found that Thailand has inadequate
screening procedures for unaccompanied migrant children, so in a number of
cases, there were boys left in immigration detention centers with unrelated
adults.
 Human
Rights Watch investigated conditions in some Thai immigration detention centers
and shelters in mid-2013. While conditions in the closed Social Development
Ministry shelters were better than those in the immigration detention centers,
there were still numerous problems. Children were separated from male
relatives, with little or no visitation opportunities, and in some cases, no
information about the location of their family members. Children in shelters had
little or no access to education.
 
The Thai
government should urgently close down the camps in southern Thailand and
prosecute government officials found to be complicit in trafficking from them,
Human Rights Watch said. The government has an obligation under international
law not to return Rohingya seeking asylum to Burma before first making a fair
assessment of their claims. If the Burmese government refuses to accept the
return of stateless Rohingya migrants, the Thai government should release them
as there is no legitimate reason to detain people solely for immigration
violations who cannot be repatriated.
For those
individuals who are detained, the government should urgently improve its
screening for unaccompanied migrant children and ensure that those children are
not held in detention with unrelated adults. It should accommodate Rohingya
asylum-seeking children and their families in open shelters with guaranteed
freedom of movement, and provide children access to education.
 
“Thailand
is detaining Rohingya children and leaving them vulnerable to the risk of
trafficking,” Farmer said. “As boat traffic picks up, it’s vital that Thai
authorities find solutions to keep Rohingya children with their families in
open centers, and provide them access to school.”
 
New
Research and Testimony:
Mistreatment
of Unaccompanied Migrant Children in Detention
Human
Rights Watch conducted research in Thai immigration detention centers and
shelters in June-August 2013, interviewing some 100 detainees and witnesses,
including several Rohingya. Our research found that many immigration detention
centers in Thailand are severely overcrowded, with detainees having
limited access to medical services and other basic necessities. In some cases,
authorities restricted Rohingya detainees, including unaccompanied boys, in
cramped conditions in small cells, with barely room to sit. As of August 2013,
some had been kept in cells for five months without any access to recreational
space. Some suffered from swollen feet and what appeared to be withered leg
muscles because of lack of exercise. Eight Rohingya men died from illness while
in detention in 2013. While intervention by international agencies had improved
medical care somewhat after these deaths, detainees still face unacceptable
risks to their health due to poor detention conditions.
While the
Thai government made some efforts in 2013 to separate undocumented child
migrants and take them out of immigration detention centers, Human Rights Watch
found that the screening was inadequate. Children, including unaccompanied
migrant children, were among the ethnic Rohingya migrants from Burma held in
the immigration detention centers.
 
Hakim A.,
a 12-year-old unaccompanied Rohingya boy, told Human Rights Watch that he was
detained at the Phang Nga Immigration Detention Center in June: “I was put in
the same room with other Rohingya. But I just went by myself in the corner of
the room. I didn’t know anybody there.… It’s not a good place: the toilet’s
right here, you live right here, you eat right here. It’s all very close.”
Service
providers in several Thai provinces told Human Rights Watch that unaccompanied
children were among the Rohingya sent by the authorities to multiple
immigration detention centers in 2013. The government did not carry out regular
age assessment procedures and lacked adequate screening to identify children.
 
Even when
the child or a family member told the authorities about the child’s age, some
children remained in immigration detention centers. Latifar Z., a 31-year-old
Rohingya woman held in a shelter, was allowed in July to visit the immigration
detention center to see her 16-year-old nephew. “I complained. I said he’s not
18, but the people there ignored my complaint and said he was an adult,” she
said. “During the violence [against Rohingya in Burma] his mother and three
younger sisters were killed in front of his eyes. I think he is still very
frightened of these things. He should be here with his family so he can regain
his confidence. But they made a wrong transcript at the beginning, and they
recorded his age as 18.”
 
In
September 2013, Thailand revised its shelter policy in ways that made it only
more likely that children would be detained in immigration detention centers.
Following the alleged sexual abuse in a shelter of a Thai girl by a Thai boy
(Rohingya children were not involved in this incident), authorities announced a
policy whereby all boys over age 12 would be excluded from shelters and sent to
immigration detention centers.
 
The United
Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which provides authoritative
interpretations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has stated that
children should never be detained because of their immigration status.
Unaccompanied children, who are particularly vulnerable to abuse in detention
as they lack anyone to protect them, should never be held with unrelated
adults.   
 
Indefinite
Detention of Children in Shelters
All
Rohingya at government shelters interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they
were not permitted to leave the facilities. Service providers, including Thai
government officials, confirmed this. The Thai government, which refuses to
consider Rohingya asylum claims, made no plans to regularize detainees’
immigration status. This left the Rohyinga essentially forcibly confined in
shelters they could not leave, a form of indefinite detention. The only option
left to the Rohingya in the shelters seeking to continue their travel to
Malaysia was to seek the assistance of outside smugglers, who in some cases
turned out to be human traffickers, to escape the shelters.
 
While some
government officials contend that closed shelters help protect migrants,
depriving people of liberty to “protect” them from traffickers is not a
legitimate basis for detention under international law. In practice, the closed
shelters make the people held there easy targets for people smugglers and human
traffickers. Human Rights Watch research shows that
Thai and Rohingya people smugglers and human traffickers gained access to some
of the government shelters in 2013 and in some cases directly arranged
“escapes.”
 
The
arrangements with those who facilitate escapes are risky. For instance, in
June, traffickers 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 one of the traffickers took her to an isolated area and
raped her repeatedly.
 
For some
Rohingya faced with indefinite detention in Thailand, seeking the help of
traffickers may appear like the better of two bad choices. Hundreds did escape
from the shelters over 2013.
“Some of
my family has already escaped,” said Latifah Z., the Rohingya woman held in a
shelter. “Should we follow like the others, or should we stay here? We don’t
know about the traffickers, is it safe?”
 
Indefinite
detention solely on grounds of immigration status is never justified against
children, according to the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Thailand
should guarantee freedom of movement to those in shelters, and ensure that
traffickers are not preying on those residing there.
 
Family
Separation and Little Access to Education
Thailand’s
approach to Rohingya migrants unnecessarily separates families. Men are
detained in immigration detention centers in many different parts of the
country, often far away from related women and younger children held in
shelters. Some Rohingya detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were able
to visit family members only once over a period of six months, while others
never were able to visit. Others said that they still did not know in which
immigration detention center their male relatives were being held.
 
International
law protects the right of children to family unity. Best practices suggest that
families should not be separated during immigration proceedings. Thailand
should explore the use of shelters for families including fathers and older
boys as well as for women and younger children, and should allow shelter
residents freedom of movement in and out of the shelters.
 Human
Rights Watch also found that children had little or no access to education
while held in Thailand’s immigration shelters. Niza, a Rohingya boy held in a
shelter, said “There’s no school here.… Even in Burma, we went to the mosque.
But here, we don’t do anything all day.”
 
The lack
of access to education violates Thai and international law. Under the
Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Thailand is party, all children
are entitled to education regardless of migration status. The Thai government
has said that migrant children with or without legal status in the country
are entitled to enroll in schools, yet these
Rohingya children have been prevented from doing so by virtue of their
detention.
 Thai
‘helping on’ policy is not helping Rohingya
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. Hundreds of
thousands of Rohingya remain at risk in camps for internally displaced people
within Burma. In one camp they were being guarded by security forces allegedly responsible for the
killing of protesters.
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 detention policy used in 2013. Between January and August 2013,
the Thai government provided 2,055 Rohingya with “temporary protection” and
sent them to immigration detention centers and government shelters.  Since
October 2013, almost all of the 2055 Rohingya in detention who were covered by
the Thai government’s “temporary protection” policy have either fled the
shelters, or escaped or been deported from the immigration detention centers.
Throughout
this period, many thousands more Rohingya have fled Burma by boat and have been
intercepted at sea by Thai 
officials and either redirected to
Malaysia or 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 migrants and asylum seekers with the protections required
under international law, and in some cases significantly increased their risk.
Under this policy, initiated approximately two years ago, 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 high 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 urges 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.