Friday, 4 May 2012

Boat people deserve better

Source from Bangkok Post, 4 May 2012
It has become a pattern. Whenever the ethnic Muslim Rohingya boat people from Myanmar reach Thai shores, the authorities arrest them as a matter of course, then provide them with water and food before pushing them out to sea again so they can go to their intended destination.
Immigration and security authorities defend such a practice as humane and insist it helps safeguard against future social problems from illegal immigrants.

Rights activists see it differently. Such a practice, they charge, makes the authorities accomplices in human trafficking and opens the door to corruption.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority in Myanmar's northern Rakhine state and across the border in Bangladesh. Systematic persecution and denial of Myanmar citizenship have forced Rohingya men to flee and seek employment in other lands.

Malaysia is their preferred destination due to its similar faith and better pay. Some of the Rohingya boat people are from Bangladesh, who like their peers in Rakhine state, must pay trafficking gangs to smuggle them into Thailand and Malaysia.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya are living and working illegally in Thailand. Some have been here for more than 30 years. Most work as streetside roti sellers. Fear of deportation has subjected them to all forms of extortion and exploitation. With families here, they want their children's statelessness to be addressed so they can live here legally and as equal human beings.

State authorities believe they will only face more of these demands for rights if they allow the Rohingya boat people to stay in the country.

And since there are not enough prisons to take in the Rohingya boat refugees, helping them to go their way is still the best policy, they argue.

This is simply an excuse to turn a blind eye or even to benefit from human trafficking. The fact is, the current policy has actually increased the number of Rohingya refugees heading to Thai shores, not the other way around.

The proof is in the numbers. Thai security forces faced an international outcry when they were caught on video towing a batch of Rohingya boat people out to sea in 2009.

In the aftermath of that incident, the government cracked down on Rohingya and detained a subsequent batch of 91 on arrival. When news of their detention reached their villages, the number of Rohingya refugees dropped from more than 1,000 a year to less than 100.

When the authorities recently took a more lenient stance, the human trafficking rackets sprang back to life. Last year, the number of Rohingya boat people arriving here rose to more than 2,500, and they now include many young girls.

It is an open secret that the boats will head for the islands nearby, with the racketeers ready to pick them up and bring them back again to Thai shores.

If they can pay for the next leg of the journey, they will be transported to Malaysia. If not, some will be sold to work as slaves on trawlers. Others are sent to work in plantations in southern Thailand.

The government should treat separately those Rohingya who have been here for years, and new arrivals trying to start a new life. The legal status of those who have families here needs to be addressed. For the new batch, the government needs to crack down on the traffickers and punish corrupt officials.

If the government does not get tough on corruption, it will be difficult to prevent Thailand from being seen as a partner in this modern slave trade.

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