International

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Sakchai Lalit/AP
Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit
Vejjajiva

Thai Government Says Burmese Refugees Weren’t Abused

January 28, 2009 11:59 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
In response to an outcry by human rights activists, the Thai government says the Rohingya boat people are not refugees.

Thailand Denies Abusing Rohingya “Migrants”

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Reuters reports that the Thai government recently released a statement saying that the Rohingya, an ethnic minority group from Burma, are not being abused, and are economic migrants who should not be allowed into the country.

“There is no reasonable ground to believe that these migrants fled from their country or origin for well-founded fear of being persecuted,” the government said in a statement.

So far, it is estimated that about 550 Rohingya have drowned after about 1,000 of them were forced back to sea by Thai soldiers after arriving on Thailand’s shores. The Thai government says that the migrants were given food and water before being sent back.

Any arriving Rohingya are now being handled by Thai police, following outcry by human rights activists about their alleged abuse by the Thai military. Voice of America reports that about 78 boat people are in police custody after arriving in Thailand on Tuesday. Some of them are now claiming that they were abused by the Burmese military prior to their departure.

It has been widely reported that the Thai government, after detaining the refugees on a remote island, have sent more than 1,000 Rohingya back to sea since December, some in boats without engines and no navigational equipment. 

The Rohingya, a mostly Muslim, stateless minority group from Western Burma and Bangladesh, have been fleeing by boat in large numbers to nearby Thailand and Malaysia. Additionally, Indian officials say that they have intercepted hundreds of refugees, mostly Rohingyas and some Bangladeshis, who have arrived on their shores, and said that the number of arrivals was “unprecedented.”

According to Refugee International, the Rohingya are “subject to arrest and abuse” upon their return to Burma, where they are not recognized as citizens. There are about 800,000 Rohingya remaining in western Burma, where 200,000 of them live in refugee camps near the country’s border with Bangladesh.

“Stateless and unwanted, they are one of the world’s most forgotten people,” reports Time magazine.

Background: Burmese refugees in Thailand

The BBC reported earlier this month that Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met with human rights officials about Thailand’s policy toward Rohingya refugees who wash up on Thai shores.

“The prime minister told the [National Human Rights] Commission not to worry about the Rohingya case,” said deputy government spokesman Buddhipongse Punnakanta, according to the BBC.

Vejjajiva’s meeting with human rights officials was prompted by a chorus of concern by human rights groups such as Refugees International, which issued a statement saying that the Thai government “should instruct its Army to desist” from its policy on the Rohingya.

“The Thai government is taking highly vulnerable people and risking their lives for political gain,” Refugee International Advocate Sean Garcia said in the statement. “It should be engaging the Burmese government on improving conditions at home for the Rohingya if it wants to stem these flows. The Rohingya will continue to make the journey because they have no hope for a better life in Burma. Pushing them back out to sea is not an effective deterrent—it just jeopardizes lives.”

Thailand has long been a refuge for a significant population of Burmese refugees and migrants, and incidents involving their abuse have surfaced in the past.

In April of last year, 37 Burmese migrant women and 17 men suffocated to death in a truck while traveling in southern Thailand. The group Human Rights Watch said at the time that the incident was a “somber wake-up call that should prompt Thai authorities to end discriminatory policies and improve protection for migrants.”

In June, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees noted that more than 30,000 Burmese refugees who had been residing in refugee camps in Thailand, some for decades, had been resettled to other countries. Most were sent to the United States, to cities such as Milwaukee, Denver, Syracuse and Minneapolis.

Related Topics: Political turmoil in Thailand

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