March 14, 2014 00:00 By SANTIPARP RAMMASUT, CHULARAT
A GROUP of 220 reportedly Muslim immigrants, whose nationality and origin was not known to Thai authorities as of press time yesterday, have been arrested at a rubber plantation in the southern province of Songkhla.
The police are unable to communicate with the group, which consists of 82 children, 78 men and 60 women, as they speak a tongue that has yet to be identified by Thai immigration and authorities. A Turkish-speaking interpreter was called in to interview them because it was initially believed that the group might hail from Turkey. The detainees were moved to an immigration office in Hat Yai district, before the women and children were moved to a shelter.
The women in the group were wearing hijab, with a netted opening for the eyes, while the men were found wearing casual attire. An immigration police officer noted that the group was comprised mostly of families and carried luggage like the sort used by normal international travellers. He added that their clothes were still clean, which possibly indicated that they had only just arrived in Thailand. He also said that they appeared to be Chinese looking.
Reporters’ also observed that the detainees were dressed in expensive-looking clothes and had sophisticated mobile devices.
“We are trying to check if they are Uighurs from China,” said Sunai Phasuk, Thailand’s representative for Human Rights Watch. Uighurs are a Muslim group from China's Xinjiang province, whose language has Turkish roots.
Upon detaining the group, the authorities first provided them with food and water, along with medical assistance for those appearing unwell. Police initially thought they might be Rohingya boat people entering Thailand illegally from Myanmar.
Officials from the United Nations Head Commissioner on Refugees have been coordinating with the authorities to take care of the group, and have enlisted help from Arab speakers to try and communicate with the group. So far, no charges of illegal entry or criminal activities have been pressed on them.
A few men reportedly escaped when the police closed in on the group in response to an alert from local residents. No details were available about the escapees as of press time.
Immigration police commander Pol Maj-General Thawatchai Pitanilabutr, who led the inspection of the plantation, said several Rohingya were also being sheltered near the farm and police are checking to see if the two groups had anything in common in relation to their travel into Thailand.
Pol Lt-Colonel Paisith Sangkhahapong, director of the Department of Special Investigation anti-human trafficking centre, said the agency had not yet looked into the incident, hence it could not determine if it was related to a crime under its jurisdiction.
He said if the group hailed from Turkey, this would be the largest group of Turkish people travelling via Thailand. He went on to say that Thailand should not be a route for human trafficking from Turkey as there were other routes available via Europe.