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Policy of Pushing Boat People Out To Sea Must End Immediately
D.C. – The Government of Thailand should instruct its Army to desist
from its new and troubling policy of pushing refugees and migrants
intercepted on boats back out to sea. The boat people are primarily
stateless Burmese Rohingya escaping severe oppression and harsh poverty
at home, but also include some Bangladeshi migrants. Both groups board
boats of varying seaworthiness with the aim of finding security and
economic opportunity in Thailand and Malaysia. The Thai government is
detaining them on a remote island and then forcing them back out to
sea. The policy endangers their lives, and exposes them to the risk of
capsizing or sinking.
“The Thai government is taking highly vulnerable people and risking their lives for political gain,” said Advocate Sean Garcia. “It should be engaging the Burmese government on improving conditions at home for the Rohingya if it wants to stem these flows. The Rohingya will continue to make the journey because they have no hope for a better life in Burma. Pushing them back out to sea is not an effective deterrent – it just jeopardizes lives.”
Press reports indicate that Thai authorities are first detaining boat migrants on an undisclosed island in the Andaman Sea before forcing them back on to boats. There are further reports that in three cases the Thai army has removed the boats’ engines before towing them out to sea. One of the boats has capsized, with four confirmed deaths and as many as 300 still missing. Another boat was rescued and turned over to the Thai authorities. Its passengers are now at risk of being pushed out again.
The actions of the Thai government contravene accepted standards of international law that discourage putting civilians at greater risk after being in the custody of government officials. The Thai authorities should, at a minimum, revert to the practice of deporting undocumented migrants. Thai officials should also ensure that refugees seeking asylum are properly screened and are not forced back to their country of origin if it will put them at risk.
“The Rohingya are stateless and have no rights inside Burma. The Burmese government targets them for forced labor and extortion, and restricts their movement,” added Advocate Sean Garcia. “The Burmese government’s policy of actively displacing the Rohingya from their homeland means that any refugee who is forced back is subject to arrest and abuse. Until the Rohingya are recognized by Burma as citizens, neighboring countries like Thailand must protect and assist this vulnerable population.”
Refugees International is a Washington, DC-based organization that advocates to end refugee crises. In November 2008, Refugees International staff conducted a mission to Bangladesh and Malaysia to assess the humanitarian conditions for Burmese Rohingya refugees, including boat migrants. There are approximately 1 million Rohingya living outside Burma. For more information, go to http://www.refugeesinternational.org.