Thailand deported dozens of Rohingya boat people back to Burma this week, defying appeals by rights groups that members of the stateless Muslim minority group fleeing sectarian violence be evaluated for possible status as refugees.
The 73 Rohingya, including as many as 20 children, were sent back across the border late Wednesday afternoon after Thai authorities determined that the overcrowded boat in which they had landed on Jan. 1 was unsafe for continued travel by sea.
Authorities had originally planned to push the boat back out into open water and on to Malaysia after supplying the asylum-seekers with food, water, and fuel.
“The waves were high and it might have been dangerous to go further, so Thailand allowed them to come into the country and detained them as illegal immigrants,” Dittaphorn Sasasmit, a spokesperson for Thailand’s Internal Security Operation Command, said on Thursday, according to Agence France-Presse.
“Immigration police sent them back overland via Ranong, where there is a border checkpoint,” Dittaphorn said.
The Rohingya, who are denied citizenship by Burma, have long been viewed by Burmese authorities and by other Burmese as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have lived in Burma for generations.
Ethnic clashes last year between Rohingyas and Buddhist Rakhines in Burma’s northwestern Rakhine state left at least 180 dead and thousands homeless, with the Rohingya believed to have borne the brunt of the violence.
In a statement on Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Thailand to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the global refugee agency, “unhindered access” to Rohingyas arriving in the country after fleeing Burma by sea.
“The Thai government should scrap its inhumane policy of summarily deporting Rohingyas, who have been brutally persecuted in Burma, and honor their right to seek asylum,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“UNHCR should be permitted to screen all Rohingya arriving in Thailand to identify and assist those seeking refugee status,” Adams said.
Last Sunday, about 450 Rohingya asylum seekers landed in Malaysia after a similar boat journey that left one dead, a man who tried to swim to shore, the Associated Press reported.
It was one of the largest groups of Rohingya in the past year to reach Malaysia, where about 25,000 Rohingya are registered with the UNHCR.
Separately, 11 Rohingyas were detained for investigation on Wednesday in the Kalay area of Burma's Chin state after being found without identification, an immigration officer told RFA's Burmese service.
"We don't know yet why they came here," the man said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are going to charge them under the Immigration Act."
On Dec. 24, a unanimously adopted U.N. General Assembly resolution expressed “particular concern about the situation of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state.”
It also urged Burma’s government to “take action to bring about an improvement in their situation and to protect all their human rights, including their right to a nationality.”
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.