|A group of Muslim Rohingya asylum seekers stand inside a cell at the Thai immigration detention center in Phangnga, southern Thailand, Feb. 14, 2013. AFP|
Thailand is under pressure to release from detention more than 1,700 Muslim Rohingya refugees, some of whom have been found locked up under squalid conditions for several months.
Days after shocking video footage showed the Rohingyas in an overcrowded immigration facility in Thailand’s Phang Nga province, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called on Bangkok to immediately release them and place them under the protection of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
But the Thai government said it has not yet found a country willing to resettle the refugees, all of them from neighboring Myanmar where religious violence since the middle of last year has forced Rohingyas to flee by boats to neighboring countries.
“Thailand should respect the basic rights of Rohingya ‘boat people’ and stop detaining them in horrific conditions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“The government should immediately allow them to pursue their asylum claims with the UN refugee agency,” Adams said in a statement.
Video footage filmed in secret by Britain’s Independent Television News (ITN) and broadcast on May 31 showed almost 300 Rohingya men held in overcrowded cells in Thailand’s Pham Nga province, with some suffering from swollen feet and withered legs resulting from lack of exercise.
The ITN program showed most of the 276 Rohingya men living in extremely cramped conditions in two cells resembling large cages, each designed to hold only 15 men, where they barely had enough room to sit.
“The men said they have not been let out of their cells in five months,” HRW said, adding that Thai authorities have separated Rohingya families in detention, sending women and children to government-run shelters apart from the men.
Thai immigration authorities have also not permitted UNHCR to conduct refugee status determination screenings of the Rohingyas.
Allowed to remain
In January, Thailand’s prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra said that Rohingyas arriving in Thailand by boat would no longer be forced out to sea and sent on to neighboring countries, but would be allowed to remain for up to six months until they can be safely sent back or resettled in a third country.
“Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution,” HRW noted in a statement.
“The UNHCR Guidelines also note that detention should not be used as a punitive or disciplinary measure, and that detention should not be used as a means of discouraging refugees from applying for asylum,” the rights group said.
But the Thai government said while it was aware of the crowded detention centers, it was difficult to resettle the Rohingyas as no country is willing to accept them.
“There is no third country ready to take them,” said Thai foreign ministry spokesman Manasvi Srisodapol, quoted by Agence France-Presse.
“They are worried that if they receive one group, tens or hundreds of thousands of others will follow,” Manasvi said.
He also told AFP that Thai government agencies are currently “discussing ways and solutions to improve” conditions at the detention centers.
Ethnic unrest in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in June last year followed by clashes in October left at least 192 dead and 140,000 homeless—most of them Rohingya, who rights groups say bore the brunt of the violence.
Around 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas live in Rakhine state, but most of them, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship as they are considered by most Burmese and the government to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
The U.N. describes these stateless people as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.