The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has urged the Thai government to clarify reports that it has forced hundreds of Bangladeshi and Myanmarese migrant workers to go back to sea, condemning them virtually to die. The UNHCR’s concerns come amid several media reports accusing the Thai military of seizing hundreds of refugees and then towing them out to sea on boats without engines and hardly any food or water.
A young Burmese Rohingya refugee
The U.S.-based Refugees International says at least two boats full of illegal migrants were intercepted by the Thai authorities in late December. In a press release earlier this week, the group cited certain press reports, indicating that the Thai military arrested these asylum seekers, held them on an island in the Andaman Sea, later forcing them out into the ocean and that too in boats without engine and little or no food and water. One of the boats, the group says, has capsized, drowning at least four and leaving nearly 300 people missing.
The Refugees International says some of the boat people were from Bangladesh but the majority belonged to Myanmar’s indigenous Muslim Rohingya community, who have been fleeing Myanmar for years in search of better economic opportunities. They often take refuge in countries such as Thailand and Malaysia.
Fleeing for a better life
Nurul Islam is the chairman of the London based Arakan Rohingya National Organisation:
“Rohingya is the ethnic community from the Arakan region in Burma. They have been oppressed by the Burmese authorities for a long time. Virtually they have become stateless in their own country. They don’t have access to work, education and they have a lot of restrictions. That’s why they are leaving.”
Recently, some of these asylum-seekers landed in India’s Andaman Islands and Indonesia’s Aceh province. Many of them were reportedly completely dehydrated upon arrival.
UN expresses concerns
Meanwhile the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says though it cannot independently confirm the incident, it is definitely concerned at the media reports.
“We have requested clarifications from the Thai government and we have urged them to ensure that these people should be treated humanely in accordance with the international humanitarian standards," says Kitty McKenzie, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Bangkok.
The Refugee International has urged the Thai government to instruct its officials to stop ill-treating the asylum seekers and rather engage Myanmar’s junta on improving conditions for the Rohingya at home.
The Thai military has reportedly denied the accusations. The Thai government has however said it is investigating the reports, insisting it remains committed to humanitarian principles.