The Thai military has been accused of seizing hundreds of refugees, towing them out to sea and “leaving them to die” without engines and barely any food or water.
Aid groups said that hundreds of water-borne refugees from the Burma-Bangladesh border were arrested and held on an island in the Andaman Sea before being forced out into the ocean. Around 500 are now being treated for severe dehydration after being rescued by the Indian coast guard. Survivors have said that scores of other refugees are still unaccounted for
“The Thai government is taking highly vulnerable people and risking their lives for political gain,” said Sean Garcia, a lawyer with the group Refugees International. “It should be engaging the Burmese government on improving conditions at home…if it wants to stem these flows.”
The refugees that were allegedly abandoned belong to the Rohingya group, a stateless Muslim minority that live on the border between Burma and Bangladesh, in particular in the west of Burma in Rakhine state. The Rohingya have long been persecuted by the Burmese authorities, which have banned them from either marrying or travelling without permission and from owning property. They are even denied citizenship.
As a result, large number of the group have regularly sought to escape to neighbouring Bangladesh. In 1978, around 200,000 of the group fled there after a particularly brutal crackdown against them, known as the Dragon King operation. In 1992 a similar number fled to the Cox’s Bazaar area of Bangladesh, though many were subsequently forced to return to Burma.
Experts say that with the refugees camps in Bangladesh long having stopped taking people, the Rohingya are now seeking to travel to Thailand and then make their way overland to Malaysia, a Muslim majority nation. They are also seeking to reach other countries in the region, including Indonesia.
The latest flood of refugees began in December. At the end of the year, several hundreds refugees were feared drowned after they jumped into the sea after their boat broke down. Indian coastguard officials found some bodies washed ashore.
Campaigners say this week’s seizure of hundreds of refugees marks a new policy by the Thai authorities, who have now tasked the military rather than the immigration service with countering the flood of Rohingya.
“We have heard from survivors that their boats were towed out to sea and then they were abandoned with two drums of water and four bags of rice - basically left to die,” said Chris Lewa, a Bangkok-based campaigner who runs the Arakan Project group. “It is very brutal and that is why the Thai government needs to stop it now and find an alternative solution.”
With the refugees fleeing towards more and more countries, the issue is to be discussed at next month’s ASEAN summit in Thailand. But campaigners say that only once Burma recognises the Rohingya as citizens and stops discriminating against them, will they stop seeking to leave.
“The Rohingya have taken to the sea because they are desperate,” said Mr Garcia, of Refugees International. “They have no hope for a better life in Burma. Pushing them back out to sea is not an effective deterrent.”
Official figures claimed that 1,225 refugees arrived in Thailand in 2005-2006. They were 2,763 in 2006-2007 and 4,886 in 2007-2008. From 26 November to 25 December last year, 659 Rohingya were seized in eight separate incidents.
While official sources in Thailand have confirmed to the BBC that the refugees were forced back out to sea, the immigration service deny such a policy. “Thai immigration office will never send illegal immigrants back to their countries by putting them back in the boat then let them go,” Police Lieutenant General Chatchawal Suksomjit, a commander of the Thailand Immigration Office, told reporters.