Human rights groups call on Thai government to help Rohingya refugees

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Human rights groups are calling on the Thai government to assist a new group of rescued Rohingya asylum seekers and allow them to determine their refugee status in Thailand.

Last Saturday, the Thai navy found 59 Rohingya refugees stranded on Koh Dong Island near Satun province in southern Thailand. The navy rescued 31 men, 23 women, and 5 children. The group was then detained and are being held at 436 Border Patrol Police unit.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Tuesday that Thai officials say they were abandoned by smugglers, who reportedly charged 60,000 Thai baht (US$1,750) per person for a journey to Malaysia.

“The Thai government should end its policy of summarily locking up rescued Rohingya boat people and throwing away the key,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch in a recent statement. “Thailand should permit the United Nations refugee agency to screen all Rohingya arriving in Thailand to identify and assist those seeking refugee status.”

Thai PBS was the first local news agency to report on the stranded refugees on June 4.

Nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees live in the crowded camps in Bangladesh and on the island of Bhasan Char, including more than 700,000 people pushed from their homes in Myanmar by military ‘clearance operations’ in 2017.

An estimated 600,000 Rohingya still live in Rakhine, where they face apartheid-like restrictions on movement, school, and healthcare. This includes some 125,000 people forced into camps in central Rakhine after clashes erupted in Rakhine in 2012.

John Quinley, a senior human rights specialist with Fortify Rights, told Thai Enquirer that the Thai government needs to do more to protect Rohingya refugees.

“The Thai authorities should provide immediate protection for Rohingya refugees that have recently arrived by boat,” Quinley said. “The authorities should stop detaining the group of Rohingya and allow UNHCR access to them to assess their urgent protection needs. These Rohingya are genocide survivors and potentially trafficking survivors.”

The difficult living conditions in the overcrowded and often dangerous camps have pushed many Rohingya to risk precarious boat journeys. Many Rohingya refugees routinely aim to reach Malaysia, Indonesia, or Thailand. But then refugees become vulnerable to human trafficking groups who have long detained and then sold refugees of whom they first agreed to smuggle to safety for a fee.

In 2015, human rights groups and journalists revealed that Rohingya refugees were trafficked through jungle camps and then sold to Thai fishing companies as slaves to produce seafood around the globe. Multiple mass graves were then uncovered that indicated that traffickers, under the threat of capture from Malaysia and Thai authorities, abandoned, tortured, and left the refugees for dead.

Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch was one of the first to tweet about the stranded Rohingya refugees.

“Human Rights Watch urges Thai authorities to immediately provide them humanitarian assistance and allow access to UNHCR. Don’t push them back,” Sunai wrote on his Twitter account on June 4.

Human Rights Watch said that Thai officials are holding over 470 Rohingya in immigration detention with no access to refugee status determination procedures. Rights groups have long called on the Thai government to develop mechanisms that would allow authorities to distinguish refugees from other migrants. Thai officials have said they would establish such procedures for years, but practical determination procedures have still not been implemented.

“The Thai government has a long history of detaining refugees indefinitely and pushing boats back out to sea,” Quinley said. “Thailand should not revert to its old ways, but instead they should welcome these refugees with open arms.”

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