Rohingyas in peril as Thailand struggles to pay for shelter
On the night Muhammad Sultan was born, he was on a perilous journey at sea. Days after, the boat that carried him and his family would be found, nearly sunk, on the shore of an island off the coast of the southwest province of Phang Nga in Thailand.Upon arrival, he and over 100 more Rohingyas from Myanmar's western Rakhine State were carted off and segregated - the men detained and the women and children placed in shelters.
"But we'd rather be here than in Myanmar, where we will surely die," his mother, Nguru, told Asia News, as she adjusted the thin fabric wrapped around Muhammad's frail body, shielding his blistering skin from the heat.
The 24-year-old mother, along with the women at the shelter in Phang Nga, said they would risk all, resort to anything, except going back to Sittwe, where they had been deprived of their homes, burned to the ground by Rakhine people. The savage persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar has led to the displacement of over 100,000 people, and the deaths of many since riots broke out in June 2012.
In Thailand, fleeing from ghettos, from a country where they are branded "stateless", the Rohingyas seek a better life, free of bloodshed.
Over 1,500 Rohingyas have arrived in Thailand since January, and authorities predict more boats will arrive in the coming months. The recent, unprecedented arrival of the Rohingyas has put pressure on the Thai government, and the absence of a policy to dealing with the crisis has exacerbated the problem.
For now, the government has decided to provide humanitarian assistance to them in detention centres and shelters across the country, for six months. After that, it is unclear whether they will be sent back to Myanmar or be resettled in another country.
"It's a very complex issue, and finding a solution is not easy," said Chis Lewa of the the Arakan Project, a group that does research-based advocacy on the situation of the Rohingya in Myanamar.
"The whole region, not just Thailand, must recognise that this is a mass exodus. Everyone is aware of the situation in Rakhine State but most countries are not open to providing protection," she said. In the meantime, she added, they must be treated more humanely.
"Thailand has no domestic [refugee[ laws and we are not party to the UN Convention on Refugees. Therefore, we cannot properly handle the issue," Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation executive director Veeravit Tianchainan said during a recent meeting on the Rohingya at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in Bangkok.
Experts are saying that had there been laws in place to deal with refugees like the Rohingyas, Thailand would not be facing this magnitude of a problem today. The arrival of the refugees in Thailand is proving to be too costly: an estimated Bt3.37 million for food for a month, at Bt75 per person a day for 1,500 refugees. That's over Bt20 million, minimum, for six months, assuming there will be no more arrivals.
A law on refugees would allow for a systematic screening, registration, and status determination of refugees entering Thailand. With a law, there would be no arbitrary arrests and detention; illegal migrants would be dealt with accordingly, and asylum-seekers treated more humanely. Veeravit said a refugee law has to be finalised before it can be submitted to Parliament.
For now, Thailand considers a non-Thai who illegally enters the country as an illegal migrant, to be charged under the law. Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul said the Rohingyas should be prosecuted for illegal entry, along with those who smuggle them into the country.
"Arresting and detaining them is a violation of human rights," Veeravit said.
As a signatory to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), Thailand cannot subject refugees to arbitrary arrest and detention. But since the Rohingyas in Thailand do not fall under that category, at least not yet, they continue to be treated as illegals.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during a recent meeting on the Rohingyas, said the government needs more information on the refugees' identity, place of origin and reason for coming to Thailand before it could determine the status of the Rohingyas and the proper way to deal with them.
In Thailand, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) would be in the best position to properly screen the Rohingyas. But the agency is barred from conducting full refugee status determination for asylum-seekers in Thailand, although the government has granted the UNHCR access to the Rohingyas recently detained in the southern provinces.
Under CAT, the principle of non-refoulement also prohibits Thailand from returning refugees to a country where their "life or freedom would be threatened".
Thai officials are still attempting to determine if the Rohingyas who have recently arrived can be classified as "refugees" or merely migrants seeking jobs here. A refugee screening process would be crucial to protecting the Rohingyas.
Sources said that most of the Rohingyas coming to Thailand are en route to Malaysia. The Thai government in 2008 in fact came under fire for its policy of pushing Rohingya boat people back out to sea, so they can move on to Malaysia, where nearly 60,000 Rohingyas are. Others proceed to Indonesia, their next choice of destination.
A source told Asia News that that those coming from Maungdaw in northern Rakhine State pay brokers Bt60,000 to go to Malaysia. The money covers the boat fee and payoffs to border guards, defence authorities, immigration officers and the police. According to the source, if the refugees cannot pay in full, they are hauled off to so-called "smugglers' camps", tortured and sold to "labour brokers".
The men, for instance, are forced to work on fishing trawlers for months to cover their debt. Once fully paid, they are brought back to the Thai mainland, where they can get a boat and proceed to Malaysia.
"The women [referring to the recent arrivals] want to follow their husbands to Malaysia, since the men can never go back to Myanmar," Lewa said.
But women like Nguru will find it difficult to reunite her family. At the immigration detention centre in Phang Nga where her husband is detained, authorities are planning to transfer them to several jails in the South, and even to the northeast of Thailand. NHRC investigating officer Kessarin Tiawsakul said the centres can no longer hold the swelling number of detainees. Phang Nga, for example, has over 300 Rohingyas cramped in a centre suitable for only 100 people.
The detainees' phones were also confiscated, leaving them with no means of communicating with their wives and children.
But for Nguru, it is enough for now that her newborn son and three other children are safe. "We leave it all to Allah," she said, fervent in her prayers that there will be a future for her and her family. She remembers, too, that just as Muhammad was born, it started to rain, as if it was a blessing from the heavens.