On August 13, 2013, the Thai cabinet considered a plan to transfer 1,839 Rohingya who have been held in immigration detention facilities and social welfare shelters across Thailand to refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border.
“Some senior Thai officials have recognized the Rohingya’s plight but they are still considering proposals that would keep them detained,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Thai government needs to end the inhumane detention of Rohingya and ensure the United Nations refugee agency and other international organizations have full access to provide much needed protection and assistance.”
On August 9, the Thai minister of social development and human security, Paveena Hongsakula, told the media that the detention and trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand were serious human rights issues. Yet at a cabinet meeting four days later she proposed sending them to refugee camps, a plan that reportedly has the backing of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Foreign Affairs Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul. Despite the fact that many Rohingya fled “ethnic cleansing” and crimes against humanity last year in Burma’s Arakan State, the Thai government refuses to consider Rohingya as refugees.
The Thai authorities have also discussed proposals to create alternative centers for the Rohingya or expand the capacity to hold Rohingya at existing immigration detention centers in Songkhla, Ranong, Prachuab Khiri Kan, and Nongkhai provinces.
Since January, the Thai authorities have detained 2,055 Rohingya on the grounds that they entered the country illegally, according to the government. Thailand has separated Rohingya families. Rohingya men have been sent to various immigration detention centers, while Rohingya women and children have been held in shelters managed by the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.
As documented by Human Rights Watch, Thai and Rohingya human traffickers have gained access to the government shelters and sought to lure out Rohingya women and children. For instance, in June, traffickers who promised to reunite Narunisa, a 25-year-old Rohingya in a shelter in Phang Nga province, with her husband in Malaysia for a 50,000 baht (US$1,660) fee, instead raped her repeatedly.
Many immigration detention centers are severely overcrowded and lack access to medical services and other basic necessities. Rohingya men are restricted to extremely cramped conditions in small cells resembling large cages, where they barely have room to sit. Some suffer from swollen feet and withered leg muscles due to lack of exercise because they have not been let out of the cells for up to five months. Eight Rohingya men have died from illness while in detention. Interventions by international agencies to provide health services, prompted in part by media exposure and international expressions of concern, have resulted in health improvements, but many Rohingya still face unacceptable risks to their health due to poor detention conditions.
“The Thai government should recognize its punitive detention policy towards the Rohingya is both inhumane and counterproductive,” Adams said.
Since July, Rohingya men fearful of being sent back to persecution in Burma or detained indefinitely in Thailand have staged protests at immigration detention facilities in Songkhla and Phang Nga provinces. Approximately 208 Rohingya men, women, and children have also escaped from detention to unknown locations.
The Thai authorities should allow Rohingya to seek migrant worker status, which would permit them to work and move freely. Because Burma’s government discriminates against the Rohingya, denying them Burmese nationality, Thailand should waive the nationality verification program requirement for migrant worker status.
“The Rohingya have fled horrific abuses in Burma that would put many at risk were they to return home,” Adams said. “Instead of sticking them in border camps or immigration lockups, the Thai government should consider allowing the Rohingya to remain, work, and live under temporary protection.”
Background: Thai policy not “helping on”
For years, thousands of ethnic Rohingya from Burma’s Arakan State have set sail to flee persecution by the Burmese government. The situation significantly worsened following sectarian violence in Arakan State in June 2012 between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Arakanese, which displaced tens of thousands of Rohingya from their homes. In October 2012, Arakanese political and religious leaders and state security forces committed crimes against humanity in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya. During the so-called “sailing season” between October 2012 and March 2013, more than 35,000 Rohingya are believed to have fled the country. International pressure on Thailand to provide temporary protection to Rohingya arriving on its shores resulted in the current detention policy. Since January, more than 1,800 Rohingya have been sent to immigration detention centers and government shelters. However, many thousands more have been intercepted at sea by Thai officials and either redirected to Malaysia or allegedly handed over to people smugglers and human traffickers who demand payment to release them and send them onwards.
Thailand’s misnamed “help on” policy towards small boats carrying Rohingya has failed to provide Rohingya asylum seekers with the protections required under international law, and in some cases significantly increased their risk. Under this policy, the Thai navy intercepts Rohingya boats that come close to the Thai coast and supposedly provides them with fuel, food, water, and other supplies on the condition that the boats continue onward to Malaysia or Indonesia. Instead of helping or providing protection, the “help on” policy either pushes ill-equipped boats of asylum seekers onwards at sea, or sees them handed over to people smugglers who promise to send the Rohingya onwards for a price, and hand over those unable to pay to human traffickers.
Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. While Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation of “non-refoulement” – not to return anyone to places where their life or freedom would be at risk. In its “Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers,” the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reaffirmed the basic human right to seek asylum and stated that “[a]s a general rule, asylum seekers should not be detained.” The UNHCR guidelines also state that detention should not be used as a punitive or disciplinary measure, or as a means of discouraging refugees from applying for asylum.
Human Rights Watch urged the Thai government to work closely with UNHCR, which has the technical expertise to screen for refugee status and the mandate to protect refugees and stateless people. Effective UNHCR screening of all Rohingya boat arrivals would help the Thai government determine who is entitled to refugee status.