Rohingyas at Large After Breakout at Thai Detention Center

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By Nopparat Chaichalearmmongkol and Wilawan Watcharasakwet

BANGKOK – Thai officials continue the search of dozens of Rohingya asylum-seekers, who broke out of an immigration detention center in southern Thailand before dawn on Tuesday.

Of the 87 Rohingya migrants who initially fled, 29 had been apprehended by Tuesday evening, said  Maj. Gen. Suwit Chernsiri, police commander of the southern province of Songkhla.

More than 1,800 Muslim Rohingya people, an ethnic minority group from western Myanmar, are being detained across Thailand, according to the country’s Internal Security Operations Command.

The Rohingyas, who number around 800,000, comprise less than 1% of Myanmar’s total population, but around a fifth of the people in Rakhine state, where tensions with local Buddhists run deep.

The Myanmar government doesn’t classify the Rohingyas as citizens, considering them as illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh even though many families have lived in the area for several generations.

The Rohingyas have also faced animosity from nationalist-minded Buddhist monks, who say they fear the spread of Islam in large parts of Myanmar.

Many Rohingyas have tried to leave the country on rickety boats, in hopes of finding a better life elsewhere, including in Muslim-majority Malaysia.  But many have either been intercepted or rescued by the Thai Navy and brought ashore, only to be pushed back or sent to a third country.

Mr. Suwit added that those who escaped on Tuesday have been detained by the immigration office for months now, while contending that “They might have escaped because of desperation.”

“Many immigration detention centers are overcrowded and many Rohingya refugees fear that they may be detained indefinitely. So they are under a lot of physical and mental stress. Other groups of Rohingya also feel that they might be sent back to Myanmar at any time. The uncertainty and fear probably have prompted them to escape,” said Sunai Phasuk from New York-based Human Rights Watch in Thailand.

HRW cited information from the Thai government in reporting that more than 35,000 Rohingya asylum-seekers are believed to have fled Myanmar during October 2012 and March 2013.

Last week, the Thai cabinet has discussed a plan to transfer 1,839 Rohingyas, who have been held in immigration detention facilities and social welfare shelters across Thailand, to refugee camps along Thailand’s border with Myanmar.
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