UN voices concern after Thai authorities allegedly force Rohingya back to sea

A wooden boat carrying Rohingya refugees being guided by Royal Thai Navy personnel (seen standing in dark outfit on the bow) as it sails towards Thailand-Malaysia sea boundary escorted by Thai Navy boat (not in picture), on April 1, 2018.
A wooden boat carrying Rohingya refugees being guided by Royal Thai Navy personnel (seen standing in dark outfit on the bow) as it sails towards Thailand-Malaysia sea boundary escorted by Thai Navy boat (not in picture), on April 1, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Monday (April 2) yesterday voiced concern over 56 Rohingya boat people who landed in Thailand on Sunday and were pushed by Thai security authorities to again set sail 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 on the Andaman Sea coast. They were brought for interrogation by Thai authorities.

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 for Malaysia.

The boat reportedly departed the coast of central Rakhine state in Myanmar last week. Given poor weather conditions in the waters off the west coast of the Thailand-Malaysia border, there were substantial concerns for the safety of the refugees.

"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.

Police 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 of reaching Malaysia.

They docked in the southern Thailand because of bad weather. An initial investigation found only Rohingya in the boat and no signs of human trafficking, Pattanachak added.

However, police commissioner 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 Agence France-Presse 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."

Longstanding persecution in Rakhine state, described by the UN as "genocide" against religious and ethnic minorities, has forced the Rohingya to flee to refugee camps in neighbouring 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.