UPDATE: UNHCR granted access to Rohingya. See update at the bottom for more details.

Thailand is moving to deport around 800 Rohingya, underlining the country’s continuing policy of refusing Burma’s (Myanmar) persecuted ethnic minority asylum status. The refugees were found in an army-led raids on human trafficker camps in the Southern Thai border province of Songkhla last week and are now detained. There are reportedly around 160 children and 30 women among them.

Many witnesses reported inhumane conditions at the trafficker camps, where the refugees received insufficient food and regular beatings. Police have arrested several suspects, including a local mayor.

The Thai Foreign Ministry insisted today that nearly 1,000 Rohingya migrants, arrested last week for illegal entry, will be eventually deported from Thailand.

Sihasak Puangketkaew, permanent secretary for foreign affairs, said legal action against the Rohingya ethnic detainees will be on humanitarian grounds while international organisations have been asked to intervene and assist.

Foreign Minister: Rohingya migrants must leave Thailand“, MCOT, January 15, 2013

The exact number of refugees is unclear. The secretary-general of national security says that 790 are in detention, while other sources claim that the number is 857. They are now currently under the detention of Thai authorities where they are being screened and most likely prepared for deportation.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry’s permanent secretary has announced that it will cooperate with international humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and Unicef, to aid the refugees and determine their status. However, as of writing…

“UNHCR has asked the Thai authorities for access to recent irregular boat arrivals and people involved in the raids. We have not been granted it yet,” Vivian Tan, the agency’s spokesperson, told AlertNet on Tuesday. (…)

UNHCR has also urged the Thai government to treat them humanely and “not to send them back to a place where their lives and freedoms could be in danger,” she added.

(…) UNHCR told AlertNet late Tuesday that while there has been progress in talks with the government, they are still awaiting access to the latest group of Rohingya detainees.

UNHCR seeks access to Rohingya detained in Thailand“, AlertNet, January 15, 2013

Additionally, Human Rights Watch’s Sunai Phasuk has tweeted on Tuesday evening:

On New Year’s Day the Thai Navy intercepted a boat with more than 70 Rohingya migrants (including children as young as 3 years old) near Phuket. The Rohingya, who were bound for Malaysia, were at sea for almost two weeks. The usual procedure by Thai authorities is to “help on” these boats on their treacherous journey from Burma to Malaysia or Indonesia through the Andaman Sea by providing medicine, food and fuel on the condition that no one leaves the boat.

If the boat is washed ashore or, like in this case, deemed too unsafe, the refugees are deported back to Burma. However in this case, amid protests by activists, the Thai authorities instead put these refugees back on another boat(s).

Thailand has been often at the center of controversy in the past concerning their handling of Rohingya refugees. Reports (not in Thai media) of boats being towed out to sea again and set adrift (sometimes removing the engine) put the Thai authorities in a very bad light.

Sectarian violence flared up between the Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine state in Burma last year. The clashes, instigated by nationalists, have killed at least 88 and displaced 100,000 more. According to a phone interview with Human Rights Watch, there are at least “one or two boats passing by the Thai coastline every day” during this time of year. In fact, Phuket Wan reports:

NINE boats containing about 1000 Rohingya men, women and children are off the coast in the Phuket region now, maritime authorities said on Monday. Two boats that were being ”helped on” are now being brought to shore, the authorities said.

’1000 Rohingya’ Off Phuket as Scale of Trafficker Trade is Revealed“, Phuket Wan, January 14, 2013

The Thai state usually regards the Rohingya not as persecuted refugees, but rather as illegal economic immigrants, therefore constantly refusing to grant them asylum. Deported Rohingyas are in danger of falling into the hands of people smugglers, who extort an enormous sum of money for transportation to Malaysia and are often forced into labor to pay off their debts.

At the same time, Thailand is facing international pressure as the United States State Department has put the country under close scrutiny over its efforts to combat human trafficking:

Thailand has been on a Tier 2 Watch List status – the second-worst rating – for three consecutive years for not fully complying “with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

A downgrade to Tier 3 – the same level with North Korea – could result in non-tariff sanctions being imposed on Thailand.

UNHCR seeks access to Rohingya detained in Thailand“, AlertNet, January 15, 2013

That also probably explains why the National Security Council has reportedly requested a “special budget from the government” to deal with the Rohingya migrants and “for Thailand’s image in the global community” (source) – because apparently this is as important for the Thai authorities as tending to those in dire need of help.

UPDATE [January 16, 2013 at 16.30h]:

Thai authorities have granted  the UNHCR access to the migrants. UNHCR spokeswoman Vivan Tan told Siam Voices that this move is “a positive step at the moment.” While no specific date has been agreed on yet, the organization is hopeful to make a first early assessment as soon as possible. According to Tan, there’s a possibility that not all about 800 persons are all Rohingya, as it has been widely reported, hence why it is important to get this first access in order to “talk who they are, verify themselves and ask them about their background.” The agreement in principle only at the moment as details about the extend of assessments are still being worked out with the authorities.

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Thailand. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and is also reports for international news media such as Channel NewsAsia. You can follow him on Twitter @Saksith.