Refugee limbo for thousands of Rohingya in Thailand

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By Bill O’Toole

An estimated 1400 Rohingya refugees in southern Thailand face an uncertain future, as the Thai government mulls a change in its policy towards the boatloads of refugees from western Myanmar that have been arriving on the country’s shores.

Thailand has been heavily criticised in the past for turning away the refugees, many of whom come from Rakhine State and identify themselves as Rohingya.

In recent months, the sheer number of displaced peoples fleeing ethnic violence in Rakhine State has drawn the attention of aid groups both in Thailand and internationally, prompting the Thai Department of Foreign Affairs to announce on January 25 that some Rohingya refugees would be allowed to stay in Thailand for at least six months as the government prepares a new policy on the issue.

But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasised in a statement on January 29 that the six months is only an “initial timeframe”.

“The possibility of repatriating these persons, and of resettlement and family reunification in a third country will be explored. Thailand has been working with the [UN Refugee Agency] and [International Organisation for Migration] on a scoping exercise which should soon provide more information to help clarify and identify a solution,” it said.

This “scoping exercise” began in southern Thailand on February 4, and involved interviews with Rohingya refugees living in government housing, allowing authorities to figure how and why they fled their country, and what should happen next.

However, asylum is only being offered to the 1400 Rohingya refugees staying in shelters built by the Thai government. This is a fraction of the 6000 refugees that Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) estimates have arrived in the country since October.

Speaking to The Bangkok Post on February 7, ISOC spokesperson Lieutenant General Dithaporn Sasasamit confirmed that the government’s policy is still to deport refugees who arrive by boat.

U Maung Kyaw Nu, chairman of the Burmese Rohingya Association of Thailand (BRAT), said he has repeatedly urged the Thai government to allow all Rohingya refugees to remain in the country. Most recently, he raised it at a meeting with Thai government officials on January 25 that immediately preceded the Department of Foreign Affairs announcement.

“I only asked the Thai government to deal with them as refugees,” he said. “There are many laws on how to deal with refugees. They should have shelter and not be sent back.”

Ms Vivian Tan, a spokesperson for UNHCR in Bangkok, said her organisation was not considering repatriation at the moment. She said UNHCR’s main concern is finding a place of asylum for the refugees, and making sure they have access to assistance from UNHCR and other humanitarian groups.

“Our access so far has been irregular ... [but] what is positive is the government is open to help from the UNHCR,” she said.

In the meantime, the 1400 Rohingya who have been allowed to stay in Thailand face the challenges of surviving in an environment where poverty and racism are the norm. As with other migrants from Myanmar, exploitation is also an issue: On January 28, The Bangkok Post reported that the Thai fishing industry was interested in having Rohingya migrants work on Thai fishing vessels.

Mr Andy Hall, an expert on migrant workers in Thailand and adviser to the Myanmar government, confirmed the report and said he had heard Rohingya are already working for substandard wages on fishing boats. He described the fishing industry in Thailand as “an incredibly abusive industry”, and added: “I think it’s incredibly insensitive to suggest that these refugees should be put to work.”

In addition, Rohingya refugees continue to fight rumours that they are arriving in Thailand to support Muslim insurgents in the south. “This story has been going on for years,” said Mr Alan Morrison, a reporter based in Phuket. “And in years and years of fighting, there’s never been any evidence of a Rohingya victim or perpetrator.”

Still the story persists. As recently as January 27, the Thai-language weekly newspaper Matichon reported that two Rohingya men had confessed to being trained to carry out attacks in southern Thailand. The report cited well-known forensic scientist Pornthip Rojanasunand, who did an initial examination of several bodies of deceased Rohingya refugees earlier this year, as its source.

But Dr Pornthip told The Myanmar Times the story was “wrong” and she had only mentioned finding evidence of amphetamine use in the bodies. She said she did, however, mention to the reporter from Matichon – and other Thai news outlets – that there were other unconfirmed cases of Rohingya having connections to Muslim insurgents.

“That is all the facts I gave in the interview but they reported it wrong in the story,” Dr Pornthip said.

The article was picked up by several other Thai papers, including The Nation, which attributed the story to “an un-named source in the department of forensic science”.

Ms Achara Deboonme, editor-in-chief of The Nation, declined to comment until she could discuss the report with her news team.

These issues have the potential to influence how many Rohingya refugees the Thai government will allow to stay in Thailand, and for how long.

U Maung Kyaw Nu said he remains optimistic that conditions for Rohingya refugees will improve but he believes the solution lies not only with the Thai government.

“We are calling on the international community,” he said. “We deserve international protection.”

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