THE UNITED NATIONS High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) yesterday voiced concern over the flight of 56 Rohingya boat people who landed in Thailand on Sunday and were pushed by Thai security authorities to again set sail onto the Andaman Sea with the hope of eventually landing in Malaysia.
Members of the persecuted minority were found early on Sunday morning in an area between Koh Ha and Koh Lanta in Krabi province. They were brought for interrogation by maritime security officers, police internal security operation command personnel.
The group, consisting of 19 men, 18 women, eight boys and 11 girls, were later returned to their boat in Koh Lanta with food and supplies donated by local residents before they set sail again for Malaysia.
The boat reportedly departed the coast of central Rakhine state in Myanmar last week. Given poor weather conditions prevailing in the waters off the west coast of the Thailand-Malaysia border, there were substantial concerns for the safety of the refugees yesterday.
“If they are found to be in distress, we hope they will be rescued and allowed to disembark in accordance with international maritime law,” the UN refugee agency told The Nation.
The refugee agency is in contact with Malaysian maritime authorities and “stands ready to support authorities in providing any necessary assistance to refugees upon disembarkation”, agency staff said.
Pol Colonel ML Pattanachak Chakrabandhu, superintendent at Koh Lanta police station, told Nation TV that the boat left Rakhine state in Myanmar, where the Rohingya face heavy persecution by local authorities, with the goal to reach Malaysia. They docked in the southern Thai province due to the bad weather.
An initial investigation found only Rohingya in the boat and no signs of human trafficking, Pattanachak added.
However, police commissioner Pol General Chakthip Chaijinda said a further investigation would be needed if evidence of human trafficking were found.
“If [Thailand] is only a transit area [for Rohingya] and any Thai person is found to be involved, whether they be police officers or whoever, they would need to be prosecuted,” Chakthip said. “If they [Rohingya] are found to be involved, they would need to be expelled only.”
Police officers in Bangladesh also said the boat had not departed from its shores, where close to 1 million refugees live in congested camps, according to an AFP report. “The boat didn’t leave from Bangladesh,” said Afrujul Haq Tutul, deputy police chief in Cox’s Bazar district, where most Rohingya camps are located. “But in light of the news, we are investigating the matter.”
Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner, Mohammad Abul Kalam, said local authorities had “no such information” about Rohingya departing from the country by boat. “We don’t have any such intelligence about anyone leaving Bangladeshi shores for Malaysia by boat,” he said.
A senior coast guard official said it was “impossible” that a captain would be able to evade patrols, which have been stepped up in recent months to combat drug trafficking and prevent people smuggling.
“They [boats] are not allowed to go out. It would be very hard to sneak out of our coastal patrol. I don’t think these people sailed away from here,” coastguard spokesman Abdullah Al Maruf told AFP.
Longstanding persecution in Rakhine state, dubbed by the UN as “genocide” against religious and ethnic minorities, has forced the Rohingya to flee to refugee camps in neigbouring Bangladesh.
Rohingya previously tried to resettle in Thailand as well, but the country has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not recognise the status of refugees, leaving them vulnerable to threats, especially human trafficking.