Concern over Rohingya boat people

Human rights groups have expressed concern over the plight of 158 Rohingya men being detained by authorities in southern Thailand.

The men, of varying ages, reportedly came ashore over the weekend, after fleeing their native Myanmar and experiencing engine trouble on their way to Malaysia.

"I'm very concerned about their possible deportation and the manner in which that could take place," Chris Lewa, the coordinator of the Arakan Project, an advocacy organization for the Rohingya, told IRIN from Geneva on 25 January.

"It's very difficult to track them should that happen," David Mathieson, a researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said, adding that he hoped the Thai authorities would permit UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) access to conduct a proper refugee status determination.

The first boat carrying 91 men arrived in Trang Province on 22 January, followed by a second one on 23 January carrying 67 to Sarai Island in Tarutao National Park, Satun Province.

Police Col. Chayawut Chansomboon, Satun immigration superintendent, reportedly said both groups would probably be repatriated.

Reports suggest that eight boats have left Myanmar and Bangladesh on their way to Malaysia since the end of December although the whereabouts of the other boats remain unknown.

Two years earlier, Thailand was criticized for its handling of another group of Rohingya boat people who washed up on its shores, amid allegations that hundreds were towed out to sea and left to die without adequate humanitarian supplies.

The Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority unrecognized as citizens by the Burmese government, have been fleeing their native Myanmar since 1978.

Each year, scores escape from Myanmar's northern Rakhine state by boat, often turning up in Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia or as far away as Indonesia.

According to UNHCR, there are some 200,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh, of whom only 28,000 are documented refugees and in two government camps assisted by the agency.