Abdul Kalam, 53, a Rohingya from Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, arrived in Thailand more than 30 years ago, after escaping forced labour in his home village of Nalywah.
“I know I am not safe here. I worry a lot about it. I have seen too many people die in detention or in human trafficking camps,” said Kalam, who is well known within the Rohingya community and is the current president of Thailand’s Rohingya National Organization, which campaigns for the rights of boat people who have arrived in the country over the past decade.
Despite having official refugee status from the UN Refugee Agency for almost 10 years, he himself cannot seek third-country resettlement as Thailand does not allow Rohingyas to be processed as refugees.
There is no data on the total number of Rohingyas in Thailand, but unconfirmed reports suggest there could be between 3,000 and 20,000.
“Most do not want attention because the boat crisis has made them more vulnerable,” said Chris Lewa, director of The Arakan Project, an advocacy group that works with Rohingyas. “Before, authorities did not bother about them existing in Thailand, but now authorities want to know where they are.”
According to the UN, over 24,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar by boat since two deadly bouts of sectarian violence in 2012 left close to 140,000 people, mostly Rohingyas, displaced.
The Rohingya, an ethnic, linguistic and religious (Muslim) minority numbering some 800,000 in Rakhine, have long faced persecution and discrimination in Myanmar where they are de jure stateless and considered undocumented immigrants.
The lack of reliable data on their numbers in Thailand highlights their invisibility and absence of protection, according to Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights International (FRI), a Myanmar-focused international legal advocacy organization. For many of the undocumented new arrivals, their only two options in Thailand are indefinite detention or being trafficked to Malaysia.
While many who entered Thailand before 2009 managed to set up small businesses, and even marry into the Thai Muslim community in the south, the ongoing exodus from Myanmar has made Thai officials wary of further influxes, resulting in a nationwide clampdown.
“We were able to negotiate with the police before,” said Kalam. “But now, for the people who do not have any documents, they can be arrested any time, according to law.”
The estimated 2,000 Rohingyas who landed on Thai soil in 2013 were all detained, according to a recent report by Equal Rights Trust (ERT), a social justice think tank based in London.
The imprisoned Rohingya suffered overcrowding, health problems due to inadequate sanitation and food, and family separation (with women and children in shelters, and men in detention centres), according to Thailand's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
“Hell is real for the Rohingyas in Thailand,” said Niran Pitakwatchara, an NHRC commissioner, adding that at least five Rohingya men had died in detention.
Close to 300 people were held in two cells meant to accommodate just 30 people, according to Human Rights Watch.
Thailand is also one of the few countries in the world that does not put a cap on detention times, which leads to informal solutions, such as escape and the release of Rohingya to traffickers, says ERT.
"[Officials] say [releasing them to traffickers] is more humane than to either deport them back to Burma or keep them in indefinite detention inside Thailand," Dmitrina Petrova, the executive director of ERT, explained.
At the mercy of traffickers
While local media recently reported that 1,300 Rohingyas were deported to Myanmar in the last few months, some say they are most likely being bought and sold “like cargo”, according to Petrova.
At the end of January 2014, at least 531 Rohingyas were still being detained after police raided a traffickers' camp on 27 January and arrested them, and according to the Arakan Project, an additional 150-200 who arrived by boat in 2013 may also be in detention.
“At the mercy of traffickers, Rohingyas can either pay for transport to Malaysia where they begin a life of irregular migrant work, or they end up in bonded labour on fishing boats,” she said.
The brokers charge upwards of US$2,000 per person for the trip, according to Kalam.
Nay Myo Amyoke, 35, a Rohingya from the Rakhine city of Sittwe who has been living in Thailand for four years, has lost several friends to traffickers since January 2013. “They are not missing,” he insisted. “They are in the brokers' hands and a few have died in the camp. Some went to Malaysia and were arrested again there.”