The Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, called for regional cooperation to deal with thousands of ethnic Rohingya people from Myanmar and Bangladesh who have been taking to the open seas to escape persecution and poverty on Tuesday. His call came after widespread criticism of Thailand’s handling of hundreds of refugees in recent weeks.
Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh are escorted by Thai security officials
CNN recently broadcast images that allegedly showed Thai security officials towing refugees out to sea, cutting them loose and abandoning them. The Thai government said on Tuesday that it was investigating the allegations.
Last week, the Thai foreign minister met ambassadors from Myanmar, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia to address the situation, which analysts say is tied to human trafficking fuelled by poverty and persecution.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Abhisit called for another meeting to include the United Nations, as well as the affected nations, to find a solution.
Prime minister acknowledges people smuggling problem
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said that the prime minister had “acknowledged that we [Thailand] had some problems with people smuggling” and that he had added it was important “to make sure the issue was handled according to the law and based on human rights in balance with national interests and security.”
“He also stressed that if it is discovered that officers are not following the rules and regulations and government policies they will be prosecuted or punished accordingly,” the spokesman said.
78 Rohingyas were discovered in southern Thailand’s Surin Islands late on Monday. Thai media reports said most were between 14 and 55 years old and had travelled from Myanmar's Arakan state. Allegations of mistreatment had arisen over 650 Rohingyas who were rescued off the coasts of India and Indonesia. Hundreds of others are still believed to be missing at sea.
UNHCR tries to get access to Rohingyas
The United Nations' Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has taken up the issue of Rohingya refugees currently detained in Thailand.
“We continue to press for access to all the Rohingya people who are in the country and we haven’t had any formal response yet. In the past we never had access to them,” said UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok Kitty McKinsey.
Sally Thompson, a director with the refugee aid agency Thailand Burma Border Consortium, said that the Rohingya people had turned to Southeast Asia in the hope of finding work as illegal immigrants.
“They are looking for ways to support their families, some of them are fleeing abuse inside Burma and have left and gone into Bangladesh. There are still refugee camps in Bangladesh.”
She added that the boat people paid human traffickers who transported them by ship before alighting them onto smaller craft, which then drifted towards Thailand and then onto Malaysia. The UNHCR has reported that more than 14,000 Rohingyas are registered as refugees in Malaysia, while thousands more work as casual workers.
The Rohingyas, a Muslim minority, live largely in Western Myanmar and face persecution by the authorities, say UN agencies. An exodus by Rohingyas in the early 1990s from Myanmar to Bangladesh left up to 20,000 Rohingya living in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar. Tens of thousands more live outside the camps.