The future of more than 1,500 recent Rohingya boat arrivals in Thailand is unclear, despite a government reprieve allowing them to stay for another six months.
"Their long-term fate remains uncertain,” Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, an advocacy group for the Rohingya, told IRIN. “In the short-term, they should not be held in overcrowded IDCs [immigration detention centres] and police cells. Alternatives to detention have to be found such as open facilities under regulated conditions where they could at least move around.”
The mainly Muslim Rohingya have long faced persecution in Myanmar, where they are de jure stateless under Burmese law; in Bangladesh most Rohingya refugees are unwelcome and face discrimination.
On 25 January, Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul announced that 1,500 Rohingya men, women and children would be allowed to stay in the country for another six months, during which time the authorities would work to find a more viable solution, including the possibility of third country resettlement.
According to the authorities, 1,486 Rohingyas arrived in January and are now in detention, including 264 women and children.
More Rohingyas (108) were rescued from a sinking boat at the Mu Ko Surin Marine National Park in Phangnaga Province on 28 January, and another 205 were intercepted south of the resort island of Phuket on 29 January, say activists.
Emergency medical staff have been on stand-by aiding the new arrivals in Khao Lak, Phangnaga Province, southern Thailand.
“Many of the survivors are suffering from severe malnutrition after drinking salty sea water which causes anaemia, scabies and stomach parasites,” said Wanida Nacharung of the Phangnaga shelter in Takua Pa District, where 82 children and 24 women are now staying.
In recent years, boatloads of mostly male Rohingyas from Bangladesh and Myanmar have migrated by boat down the Andaman coast in the hope of reaching predominately Muslim Malaysia and finding work.
But this year there has been an increasing number of women and children accompanying the men.
According to the UN, some 115,000 people are displaced in Myanmar’s Rakhine State following inter-communal violence in June and October 2012, in which thousands of homes and buildings were burned or destroyed and dozens of people killed. About 85 percent of the displaced are in and around Sittwe.
Critics say that sending the Rohingya back to Myanmar - as has been Thai policy in the past - would be a mistake, and they call on the authorities to improve conditions inside the detention centres.
“We would like to discuss about non-refoulement and the long-term treatment of the Rohingya in Thailand's detention centres because in the past, we detained them for so long in confined quarters some of them died. We must learn from the past,” said Kessarin Tiawsakul, an investigating officer from National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.
Tiawsakul realizes that some of the arrivals may actually be Bangladeshi labour migrants. He said a proper identification process needs be implemented to provide a more accurate profile of each case.
More to come?
Large numbers of boats have already sailed and are expected to continue to sail from the Bangladesh and Myanmar border area, Sittwe and other locations in Rakhine State, according to Lewa.
Recently arrived Areecha, 40, from Sittwe, said she had no option but to board a boat after the Burmese military shot her two sons and their house was torched in June.
“There was no water on the boat and we were desperate. Some people passed out. Others vomited. I want to die here. I don't want to go back,” she said.
More than 900 Rohingya men are now being detained in 10 police stations and two IDCs in Songkhla Province, southern Thailand.
“The immediate priority is to make sure their humanitarian needs are addressed. The local authorities and community in Songkhla have been very generous with their assistance, but there need to be more sustainable ways to accommodate these groups,” said Vivian Tan, a spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
“There are likely to be different profiles within these groups, including people who may need international protection, vulnerable individuals like unaccompanied children, and possibly people seeking economic opportunities elsewhere. Different groups will need different solutions,” she said.
“The Rohingya should have a right to apply for asylum and have the right to go through a full refugee status determination process overseen by the UNHCR with the Thai authorities,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia. “If they are found to be refugees they should be provided with all entailed in terms of protection, not just temporarily but over the long term if needed.”