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Thailand willing to shelter Rohingya
Publication Date : 31-01-2013
In a partial policy shift, Thailand says it will shelter Rohingya people fleeing Myanmar for six months, becoming the second Asean nation after Malaysia to take them in.
Once criticised for its harsh policy of turning back Rohingya or deporting them, Bangkok is conscious of its international reputation, a senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official confided.
Thailand will now lend a helping hand while the government consults with international agencies and third countries about what to do with the Rohingya in the long term.
Bangkok is also keen to avoid any incidents which may result in a downgrade on the US State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report later this year. It is now on the TIP report's Tier2 Watch List. A demotion to Tier3 would trigger sanctions which both Bangkok and Washington, which are close allies, want to avoid.
Waves of Rohingya fleeing poverty and ethnic violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state, and miserable conditions in makeshift camps in Bangladesh's Teknaf area bordering Rakhine, have been landing on Thailand's southern shores - mostly in the Phuket area - in recent weeks.
Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs' permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow said on Tuesday that 1,486 Rohingya had so far arrived, including 264 women and children. Their identities and origins were still being processed.
The National Security Council on Monday proposed building three new detention centres in Songkhla and Ranong to accommodate Rohingya for six months. Officials say the time will be used to discuss assistance and relocation with international agencies, like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organisation for Migration, and third country governments.
The officials said it was still uncertain what would happen after six months. Also unclear is whether Rohingya who arrive in the coming days will be accommodated or pushed back, after being given provisions, to continue to Malaysia, which as a Muslim-majority country is the preferred destination.
The UNHCR says there are 24,370 Rohingya registered in Malaysia, but the real number is certainly higher; the agency's last registration exercise was in 2009, and there could be up to 20,000 more Rohingya. In recent weeks, some 2,000 have arrived.
Malaysian government policy is not to turn them back. Most are in immigration detention centres.
On Tuesday, 205 Rohingya on a boat off the island of Koh Racha Noi were given food and water by the Thai Navy and a local group, and told to continue on to Malaysia. Thailand sees the Rohingya as illegal immigrants - a technical term which does not acknowledge them as refugees.
The UNHCR is also negotiating with the Thai authorities for more access to Rohingya already in detention centres that are in danger of becoming overcrowded. A team from the UNHCR has only had brief access to two such centres, last week.
"It is unclear what terms of access the UNHCR will get," said Bangkok-based Phil Robertson, of United States-based Human Rights Watch. "Ideally, there should be some sort of protection beyond putting them into some shelters and enclosures."
Thai security agencies do not want to allow the Rohingya to settle in Thailand. A Bangkok-based analyst specialising in refugee issues, who asked not to be named, said the six-month timeframe would buy time, and Thailand had little choice.
"It's not easy, they will be overwhelmed," he said. "It is a difficult balance to strike."
The Thais have also been embarrassed at the alleged involvement of two high-ranking army officers in the smuggling of Rohingya. The army suspended them last week.
On January 10, a police-military operation raided a transit camp on the Thai-Malaysia border and found 66 men, women and children - three of them under one year old - and seven people traffickers.
The Myanmar government does not recognise the Rohingya as one of the country's 135 ethnic groups. This month, locals in southern Thailand rallied to the support of boat people. Kitti Islam, of the Phuket Islamic Council, told the Phuket Gazette: "Many refugees don't have blankets to cover them when they sleep, or clothes or things necessary for daily life."