Rohingya stuck in Thai detention vulnerable to traffickers

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 8, 2013

Over 2,000 Rohingya refugees are detained in Thailand as more reports about inhumane conditions, human trafficking and rape surface while efforts to relocate them to another country have so far failed. With a deadline looming very soon, they are now threatened to be stuck in limbo.

The Rohingya, an ethnic minority group denied citizenship and targeted in ongoing deadly persecution in Burma (partly incited by Buddhist monks), have fled on often overcrowded and frail vessels in the Andaman Sea in attempts to reach Malaysia or Indonesia, but more often than not land on Thailand’s shorelines or are being intercepted by Thai authorities and either towed out back to sea again (euphemistically labeled by Thai officials as a “help-on”-policy) or deported back to Burma, since the Kingdom regards their status as those of illegal immigrants rather than asylum seekers.

In recent years, there were numerous reports of mistreatment by Thai officials during these “help-on”-procedures such as setting refugee boats adrift on the sea again and sometimes allegedly even removing the engine. Earlier this January, we reported on allegations that officials of the Thai Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) have sold off 74 Rohingyas to human traffickers. Later in March, the Thai Navy faced allegations of shooting and killing as many as 20 refugees that were fleeing in the water from a failed boat-transfer. In both cases there were no impartial investigations and internal inquiries have come up without any results.

Those stranded or rescued by Thai officials – as many as 800 were found in human trafficker camps – are put into detention. According to statistics by Muslim humanitarian groups and published in the Bangkok Post, 2,018 Rohingya refugees are currently detained at 24 stations of vastly different standards, mostly located in the South of Thailand but also some as far as Chiang Rai in the North.

In the late May, Channel 4 News visited the second-largest detention center in Phang Nga and found the conditions to be dismal:

We got a good idea of just how serious these problems are when Channel 4 News accompanied a group of charity workers to an immigration lock-up in a Thai town called Phang Nga. The volunteers, who were members of a local mosque, told us the facility was severely overcrowded and they wanted us to see for ourselves.

(…) We found 276 male Rohingya living in extremely cramped conditions on the second floor – the majority crammed in one of two small “cages”. Inside, there was barely enough room to sit. There were a small number of others living between the two cells suffering from swollen feet and withered leg muscles. The cause was simple – lack of exercise. The men say they haven’t been let out in five months.

(…) This place typically hosts five to 15 men – not 276 – and the smell of sweat, urine and human waste was overpowering. The heat and mosquitos were oppressive and the men seemed to share a deep sense of despondency. A man told my translator that he was ready to tie his clothes together and use them as a rope to hang himself. In another conversation captured on film an inmate told us he had “nothing to live for”. Our translator was forced to plead with them not to kill themselves.

The plight of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims in a Thai camp“, by John Sparks, Channel 4 News, May 31, 2013

The report goes on to say that the Thai authorities are aware of the problems and “alternative arrangements are being identified.” How these alternatives look (e.g. additional buildings) was not said. However, in some areas, plans for the construction of additional facilities were met with protests of locals.

In other locations, there are reports of female refugees falling victims to human traffickers and sexual assault:

[H]uman traffickers – both Rohingya and Thai – were able to gain access to the shelter in Phang Nga province soon after a group of about 70 Rohingya women and children arrived there in January. Korlimula, who was identified to Human Rights Watch as working for a Rohingya-Thai human trafficking gang, told Narunisa that he would reunite her with her husband in Malaysia for a fee of 50,000 baht (approximately US$1600).

On May 27, Korlimula helped Narunisa and her two children to escape from the shelter and took her to meet with other associates. Narunisa and her children were put on a pickup truck driven by a man, whom she later learned is a police officer at Khao Lak police station in Phang Nga province. The three of them were taken to six hideouts in the province, and in each case locked up against their will. At the final hideout on Koh Yipoon Island in Phang Nga province’s Kuraburi district, Korlimula repeatedly assaulted and raped Narunisa at knifepoint over the course of three days, from June 9 to 11. After that, Narunisa and her children were dumped on the street in Kuraburi district and the three of them made their way back to the shelter on June 18. Narunisa reported the rape case at Kuraburi district police station on June 18, and then filed a formal complaint against Korlimula on June 21.

Thailand: Traffickers Access Government-run ‘Shelter’”, Human Rights Watch, June 27, 2013

Such cases reveal that some human trafficker rings are colluding with local officials and politicians. Bangkok Post reports that both the human trafficker and the police officer have been charged.

The refugees have been waiting for at least six months, while Thailand is trying to find another country to take them in, but has yet to find one. The deadline of July 26 is running out, but the question about the fate of the more than 2,000 Rohingya refugees stuck in a legal limbo in Thailand’s detention centers remains unanswered.

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