Tuesday, June 21, 2011

New Refugee Arrests Undermine Recent Progress

In this photo taken on Feb. 16, 2011, Rohingya boat people wait for medical treatment after being rescued, at a port in Aceh Besar, Aceh province, Indonesia. (Photo: AP)

BANGKOK - on June 7, the day after 96 Pakistani Ahmadiyah refugees and asylum seekers were freed on bail in what was hailed as a landmark new departure in Thailand's dealings with refugees, six other Pakistani asylum seekers and one refugee were arrested in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok.

The seven were sent to Bangkok's Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Centre (IDC), site of the high-profile June 6 release, says the UN refugee agency (UNCHR). "We are deeply concerned about these arrests that just increase the sense of insecurity that refugees and asylum seekers already feel", said Jean-Noël Wetterwald, UNHCR regional representative and coordinator for Southeast Asia.

The June 7 arrests were followed up on June 9 with the arrest of nine more Ahmadiyah asylum-seekers in Ayutthuya, with still more Ahmadiyah detained on June 15. The new arrests include children under five years old, as well as a number of Sri Lankan nationals. The Ahmadiyah are members of a minority Islamic group that is oppressed in Pakistan, where they are not recognized as Muslims and are often victims of sectarian violence.

Speaking on Monday evening at Bangkok's Foreign Correspondent's Club, Thailand National Human Rights Commissioner Niran Pitakwatchara described possible human rights violations at the IDC, such as detention conditions he depicted as crowded and unhealthy. One year ago today, Thailand assumed the Presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Thailand has long been a destination for refugees fleeing oppression in south and southeastern Asia, and currently around 140,000 Burmese refugees are in Thailand, mostly in nine camps along the Thai-Burma border. Monday, June 20, was World Refugee Day, with Burma cited as the world's fifth-highest source of refugees with 415,700 worldwide, around 200,000 of which are Rohingya.

The Rohingya are a Muslim people numbering around one million, mostly living in northern Arakan State in western Burma. They are denied Burmese citizenship and have long been persecuted. According to Refugees International, state and army land seizures, forced labor, arbitrary arrests and extortion of Rohngya are common.

More than 40 Rohngya are detained in Suan Plu IDC, which sits close to the main banking and finance district in Bangkok. Others are held elsewhere in Thailand, some of whom have languished inside detention centers for more than two years, although negotiations are taking place between refugee rights groups and the Thai authorities for the release of the Rohingya detainees.

In early 2009, allegations that the Thai army abandoned nearly 1,000 Rohingya at sea caused international anger, prompting then newly-installed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva to say he would investigate the claims. A diplomatic cable sent from the US Embassy in Bangkok, which was released early on Tuesday, outlined that prior to March 2009, the US sought to influence Thailand's 'pushback' of Rohingya trying to enter Thailand by sea.

The American representatives, including then-Ambassador to Thailand Eric John, said they raised the issue with Thai officials and lawmakers, including PM Abhisit, resulting in what the Americans perceived to be a temporary respite in Thailand's maritime pushbacks. The cable acknowledged the role played by media coverage, including that of The Irrawaddy, in pressuring the Thai authorities to relax the pushbacks.

After the advocacy push and media coverage, the next group of Rohingya arrivals to Thailand's shores were well-treated, according to the US account. However, the Thai authorities cited their concerns that the granting of full refugee status to a party of 78 Rohingya being held at Ranong would prompt more refugees to come to Thailand in the hope of acquiring the same status and possible eventual third-country resettlement to a Western nation.

The cable mentioned US efforts to address the 'root causes' of the Rohingya problem, namely the human rights situation in Burma and Arakan State specifically. The US said it wanted Burma's fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to pressure Burma into improving conditions in Rohingya-populated regions of Burma, measures that some analysts believe would reduce the numbers of Rohingya seeking refuge abroad.

On June 9, US Assistant Secretary for Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration Eric P Schwartz reiterated the American position that "the solution to the Rohingya issue lies in Burma." However, it is not clear that the US can convince Burma's neighbors that Burmese Government policy toward Rohingya is the cause of their flight to Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia .

By SIMON ROUGHNEEN Tuesday, June 21, 2011

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