UN Calls for ‘Protection’ Access to Rohingya

Source from:
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

CONCERNS are mounting about the treatment of two boatloads of would-be Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees being trucked to the Thai border port of Ranong and for two more boatloads that have reportedly been ”helped on” at sea.

The United Nations has asked the Thai Government for access to 158 men who came ashore in two boats on Thailand’s southern Andaman coast over the weekend.

”We would like to determine if they are in need of international protection,” said UN Human Rights Commission spokesperson Andrej Mahecic, speaking from Geneva. ”We are definitely keen to gain access to these people.”

A source in Ranong said that the first group of 91 men, now being held at a local detention centre, were categorised as ”Burmese from the south” rather than as Rohingya.

As Burmese, it would be possible for Thai authorities to repatriate the men to Burma, but as Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority group constantly persecuted within Burma, they would be in fear of their lives and have clear-cut claim to refugee status.

A second group of 67 men who arrived on Sunday was reported to be being transferred by truck from the southern province of Satun to Ranong today.

Villagers close to Ranong, a busy port frequented by traders, said today that they had ”helped on” two boatloads of men, one containing 66 and the other 40, on January 19. Military authorities had since told the villagers not to inform the media of this, National Channel Breaking News reported.

Several other boatloads of Rohingya may be off the Andaman coast of Thailand, according to information from Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, and sailing south to what they hope will be sanctuary in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Colonel Chayawut Chansomboon, head of Immigration in Satun, confirmed that the two boatloads of men had arrived over the weekend. He said the intention was to send the men to the International Detention Centre in Bangkok, but the 1500-capacity centre was full.

”Authorities decided to send them to Ranong, where there is space for 300,” he said. The second boatload was undergoing health checks, fingerprinting and debriefing yesterday and would be trucked to Ranong today, he said.

Ranong Immigration centre has a poor reputation for the care of would-be Rohingya refugees.

Two Rohingya teenagers died in the custody of Ranong Immigration in 2009 and others were bent double and transferred to Bangkok after several months of being squeezed into inadequate accommodation, with no sunlight or exercise. Rohingyas who arrived on that boat two years ago remain in detention, the UNHCR confirmed.

The novel definition of Rohingya as ”Burmese from the south” may explain why, when Phuketwan called Ranong Immigration today, a spokesman said: ”We have no Rohingya here.”

The boatloads are the first to arrive in Thailand since 2009, rekindling the human rights outrage of the ”pushbacks” by the Thai military that led to the deaths of hundreds of Rohingya. The Rohingya were towed out to international waters and cut adrift, with no power and little food.

Since then, the Royal Thai Navy is known to have ”helped on” at least one Rohingya boat that made it to Malaysia last year.

The Rohingya boats, with passengers exposed to sun and rain, are generally without navigation aids and put to shore whenever food runs low, without being certain whether they are in Thailand or further south.

Second Rohingya Boat Lands South of Phuket..

By Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison

Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Occupants of the second boat are assembled in Satun province
A SECOND boatload of Rohingya and Bangladeshis has landed south of Phuket just one day after the first vessel, compounding concern about what will happen if hundreds more stateless would-be refugees follow.

Local authorities in two southern Thai provinces now have to assess these unwelcome newcomers by establishing their identities, checking their health, taking their fingerprints, then deciding what to do with them.

The 67 men on the second boat that landed on Sarai island in Tarutao National Park in Satun on Sunday appeared younger but just as hungry and exhausted as the 91 all-male occupants of the first boat that came ashore in Trang the previous day.

It’s two years this week since the last boatload of Rohingya arrived in Thailand, concluding a tragic chapter of human rights abuse. Rohingya refugees were first secreted on an Andaman island then towed out to international waters and abandoned as part of Thailand’s covert ”pushbacks” policy. Unknown numbers, probably hundreds, perished at sea before survivors reached India and Indonesia.

The reprehensible policy ended when the South China Morning Post newspaper disclosed what was happening in a series of articles. That was two years ago, yet the last boatload of Rohingya to arrive and escape the ”pushbacks” remains in a detention centre in Bangkok.

Local Satun fishermen raised the Rohingya alarm anew on Sunday when they spotted the unusual boat and its bedraggled occupants in the national park. The first boat took 12 days to travel south towards supposed sanctuary in Malaysia, and it’s likely that the second boat departed from northern Burma or Bangladesh about the same time.

With one group of Rohingya still in detention after two years, it’s probable that the same course of action will be taken with these two new groups until Thailand can find an acceptable solution to the entire region’s unanswered question of what to do with unwanted Rohingya.

Some among the boatload from January 2009 eventually declared themselves to be citizens of Bangladesh, which entitled them to repatriation. Genuine Rohingya, though, denied citizenship in Burma or anywhere else, have no home to go back to.

Visit Tangpong, police chief in Trang province’s Kantang district, told the AFP news agency that the new arrivals would be trucked straight back to Burma. But unless Burma’s policy has changed, the Rohingya will not be accepted across the border.

"We are providing basic humanitarian assistance with food and water, but they were illegal immigrants,” he told AFP. ”We have to follow our laws."

A different account emerged from Colonel Chawarat Plangsang, superintendent of the Satun city police station, who said: ”Special branch police arrested these men and passed them on to us. We will check their health, fingerprint them, take photos, and hear what they have to say.

”Tomorrow (Tuesday) we will pass them on to Immigration.”

It’s anticipated both groups will be taken and held in Ranong, the border port in Thailand opposite the Burmese port of Victoria Point, where two teenage members of the previous boatload of Rohingya died in custody, and where others suffered crippling afflictions after being kept indoors without exercise or sunshine for months.

Seven of Sunday’s arrivals carried cards that identified them as Bangladeshis. Several other boats are reported to be on the water, sailing south, but as with the first two boats, they may be forced ashore by hunger and exhaustion before they reach Malaysia.

Just one Rohingya boat is believed to have reached Malaysia in the past two years, and the occupants were taken into detention. Malaysia also applies caning as a penalty for illegal arrivals.

The Thai Navy ”helped along” the Rohingya boat with food. Rear Admiral Choomnoom Ardwong, commander of the Third Navy, based in Phang Nga and Phuket, said yesterday that Navy vessels patrolled Thai waters north of Phuket and intercepted any unusual boats.

”Now these boats are appearing in the south,” he said. Navy patrols mostly take place in northern waters. ”Our local networks would let us know if they spotted anything unusual. People in the south are less aware of what to do if a strange vessel approaches.”

The last group to arrive safely in Thailand in 2009 told authorities that several among them had been severely beaten and burned by Burmese officials, when they happened to go ashore prematurely. Those men were patched up in a Ranong hospital before being sent into detention.

Initially, military authorities believed that the passengers on the Rohingya boats were all-male because the men had been recruited to join the deadly insurgency in the southern Thai provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.

Only after Thailand’s leading forensic scientist Dr Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand checked boats for residues of explosives was in accepted that the Rohingya menfolk travelled alone because they considered the voyage too perilous for their womenfolk to undertake.

Thailand’s Foreign Minister, Kasit Piromya, visited the boatload of 62 Rohingya and Bangladeshis in detention in Ranong two years ago. He was coincidentally in Burma at the weekend to meet democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and talk to the country’s military rulers.

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