When nearly 850 Rohingya boat people were rescued from their secret shelters in Songkhla’s Sadao district this week, the government finally did the right thing by providing them with humanitarian care and allowing them to have access to international assistance.
Up until this week, the country’s main policy toward Rohingya boat people was to give them food, water, and fuel before putting them back out to sea so they can continue their journey to Malaysia, which is their main destination, or to deport them by land back to Myanmar.
By chasing them away, either by sea or by land, this policy is equivalent to pushing the Rohingya back into the open arms of human traffickers. If they cannot pay up, they risk imprisonment, torture, or even death back in Myanmar.
It is therefore good news that the government finally responded to calls from human rights groups and the international community to give humanitarian assistance to the Muslim-minority Rohingya who fled ethnic-cleansing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
There are many woman and children among the rescued Rohingya. This clearly shows that this latest influx of Rohingya boat people who have reached Thai shores are war refugees and asylum seekers. They must be treated accordingly. Thailand, however, still considers them illegal immigrants, which makes them criminals in the eyes of Thai law which subjects them to arrest, imprisonment and deportation.
The Yingluck government made the right decision not to deport them and allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to interview the boat people in order to determine who they are, where they came from, and what they need.
This assessment process is crucial. The records will help ensure that the assistance meets their needs and help the authorities with later identification when the same Rohingya are smuggled back into Thailand again.
There is no such assessment system at present. This laxity made it easy for corrupt officials to assist human traffickers by sending the Rohingya asylum seekers across the border and allowing them back again, which essentially makes them part of the human trafficking racket.
Amid trade sanction threats from the US and EU, the Yingluck government has sent the right message to the international community by starting to take human traffickers to task. But the government needs to do much more to prove its commitment to battling human trafficking.
To start with, a local politician in Songkhla and two Rohingya men wanted by the police are just small fry in the Rohingya human trafficking racket. Even so, they have not yet been arrested. The big fish remain unscathed. So do the corrupt officials. As long as these key players are spared, then the stream of Rohingya boat people won’t stop.
Apart from getting real with the human trafficking rackets and corrupt officials, the government must stop viewing the Rohingya as a national security threat and set up a system to identify their identities and their needs so they can go to third countries or return home.
To help the Rohingya, the international community must also lend a hand, not only by financially supporting humanitarian assistance, but also by exerting pressure on the Myanmar government to stop ethnic violence in Rakhine. If the international community continues to focus on Thailand’s policy shortcomings while turning a blind eye to the ongoing atrocities against the Rohingya so it can still enjoy reaping benefits from investment opportunities in Myanmar, there is one word to describe this gap between words and actions. It is called hypocrisy.