Human Rights Watch has urged Thailand not to deport 73 Rohingya Muslims back to Burma, where they have been the target of recent sectarian violence, and to reveal where the migrants were taken after being intercepted by Thai authorities earlier this week.
The Rohingya Muslims, intercepted by Thai authorities at sea while traveling by boat to Malaysia on Tuesday, were reportedly being driven to the Thai-Burma border on Wednesday evening. But as of Thursday afternoon, Sunai Phasuk, a Bangkok-based spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said it was unclear where the group had been taken.
“We’re trying to determine their whereabouts,” he told The Irrawaddy on Thursday at about 2:30 pm, saying the migrants arrived Wednesday night in Thailand’s Ranong province, near the Burma border, and were initially brought to an immigration center there.
“But after that they were transferred into military custody, and it became unclear from that point onward what happened to the group,” he said. “We’re not quite sure where they are or what’s going to happen to them, and we’re concerned about whether Thailand is going to continue with its plan to deport them.”
Sunai said a local media report on Thursday afternoon claimed that a military unit in Ranong put the Rohingya migrants on a boat and took them back out to sea, where they were reportedly transferred onto another boat of other Rohingya asylum seekers also heading to Malaysia.
He said he was still trying to verify the local media report, by Phuketwan news portal.
“It’s very important for the Thai government to clarify where these Rohingya are and what the Thai authorities are planning to do to them,” he said.
He added that Thai authorizes should allow UN officials to screen the migrants to determine whether they were seeking asylum and qualified for official refugee status.
“The bottom line now is that they cannot be sent out of Thailand without UNHCR screening,” he said, referring to the UN refugee agency.
The 73 Rohingya Muslims were stopped by Thai authorities in the Andaman Sea off a Thai resort island on Tuesday, according to a report by the Associated Press.
In accordance with Thailand’s “help on” policy, authorities initially provided the group with food, water and other supplies so they could continue traveling to Malaysia without landing on Thai shores, Human Rights Watch said.
“When they found that the rickety, overcrowded boat had cracks and that many passengers were too weak to endure a stormy sea voyage, the authorities brought the group ashore to the Phuket Immigration office,” the New York-based rights watchdog said in a statement on Wednesday. By 4 pm that day, “two trucks with all 73 Rohingya were heading to Ranong province for deportation to Burma.”
About 800,000 Rohingya Muslims live in Buddhist-majority Burma, according to UN estimates, but Burma’s government does not recognize them as citizens, and many people in the country regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
In June and October last year, Rohingya and other Muslim groups were targeted in communal violence with ethnic Buddhists in Burma’s western Arakan State.
The fighting left dozens dead and displaced more than 100,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims who were forced to stay in cramped camps where they lack basic supplies and their movement is restricted.
Human Rights Watch said Thailand had an obligation under customary international law not to deport anyone back to a country where their lives and freedom were threatened.
“The Thai government should scrap its inhumane policy of summarily deporting Rohingya, who have been brutally persecuted in Burma, and honor the right to seek asylum,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement on Wednesday. “Until UNHCR is allowed to conduct refugee screening, the Thai government should halt forcible returns of Rohingya boat people.”