The government should end the inhumane separation and detention of ethnic Rohingya families from Myanmar and allow them to contribute to the Thai economyFor years, thousands of ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar's Arakan State have set sail to flee persecution by the Myanmar 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 centres and 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 "as 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.
On August 13, the 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-Myanmar border.
Some senior Thai officials have recognised the Rohingya's plight but are still considering proposals that would keep them detained. The Thai government needs to end the inhumane detention of Rohingya and ensure the UN refugee agency and other international organisations 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 the 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 in Myanmar's Arakan State, the Thai government refuses to consider the Rohingya as refugees.
The Thai authorities have also discussed proposals to create alternative centres for the Rohingya or expand the capacity to hold Rohingya at existing immigration detention centres in Songkhla, Ranong, Prachuab Khiri Khan and Nong Khai 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 centres, 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 (HRW), Thai and Rohingya human traffickers have gained access to the government shelters and sought to lure out Rohingya women and children. 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 Bt50,000 fee, instead raped her repeatedly.
Many immigration detention centres 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 government should recognise that its punitive detention policy is both inhumane and counterproductive.
Since July, Rohingya men fearful of being sent back to persecution in Myanmar or detained indefinitely in Thailand have staged protests at detention facilities in Songkhla and Phang Nga. Approximately 208 Rohingya men, women and children have also escaped from detention to unknown locations.
The Thai authorities should allow the Rohingya to seek migrant worker status, which would permit them to work and move freely. Because the Myanmar government discriminates against the Rohingya, denying them Myanmar nationality, Thailand should waive the nationality verification programme requirement for migrant worker status.
The Rohingya have fled horrific abuses in Myanmar that would put many at risk were they to return home. Instead of sticking them in border camps or immigration lock-ups, the Thai government should consider allowing the Rohingya to remain, work and live under temporary protection.
HRW urges the Thai government to work closely with the 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.