UNHCR concerned over treatment of Rohingya boat people

Allegations of the ill-treatment of Rohingya boat people by the Thai authorities are worrying the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

“We are gravely concerned by the media reports about an alleged push-back and are investigating,” Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told IRIN on 11 February in Bangkok, noting, however, that it was too early to speculate any further.

Her comments follow media reports in India this week that a group of 91 Rohingya had been found in the Indian administered Nicobar islands - about 640km west of Myanmar’s Tenasserim coast - on 6 February.

The refugees reportedly told police they had been set adrift without adequate food and water, in a boat without an engine, by the Thai navy; a charge the Thai authorities have rejected.

The Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority unrecognized as citizens by the Burmese government, have been fleeing their native Myanmar for decades - many of them making their way to Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia.

At least three boatloads of Rohingya have found their way to Thailand in the past month, activists say.

The first boat carrying 91 men of varying ages arrived in Trang Province on 22 January; a second boat with 67 men arrived in Satun Province on 23 January; and a third boat arrived in Phuket Province on 1 February carrying 68 men.

UNHCR has recently been granted access to those who were on the second and third boats, including nine teenagers who were interviewed on 11 February by a UNHCR lawyer and community services officer. The remaining 126 men would probably be interviewed next week, McKinsey said.

UNHCR, however, still does not know where the men from the first boat are.

On 23 January, Thailand's official news agency, MCOT, reported that the men from the first boat had been sent back to Myanmar by the Thai authorities.

In 2009 Thailand was strongly criticized over its handling of a group of Rohingya boat people who turned up on its shores. There were allegations that hundreds were towed out to sea and left to die without adequate supplies.

According to UNHCR, there are some 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh of whom only 28,000 are documented refugees. The documented refugees live in two government camps which receive UNHCR support.

The Thai authorities view Rohingya as illegal labour migrants and estimate there are already some 20,000 in the country.