Treat refugees humanely, process them transparently

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 January, 2009, 12:00am

The Thai army's policy of towing Rohingya boatpeople out to sea and abandoning them has taken a terrible toll in human lives. Hundreds of refugees have perished and those who survived endured a harrowing ordeal, as this newspaper's investigations reveal. The Thai authorities must cease this repugnant and inhumane practice immediately, before more lives are lost.

A tragedy was always likely given the heartless way in which the migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh were treated after arriving on Thailand's Andaman coast. Many were held on a deserted island before being packed into boats, taken out to sea and cast adrift. This is unacceptable. Thailand's government has now promised to investigate and to reassess its policy. This is welcome and it must be done as a matter of urgency. Any investigation should cover unconfirmed claims by survivors that some migrants were shot dead by Thai forces while in detention.

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, are fleeing poverty and oppression in Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship. Many of them aim to eventually reach Malaysia, where they hope for a job and a better life. At least since December, those caught by Thai authorities have been handed over to the army. Previously, immigration officials handled their cases. The Thai army has denied a policy of expulsion exists. But sufficiently convincing evidence and reliable witness accounts have emerged to indicate otherwise. The Thai military's actions are a clear violation of international laws, human rights norms and simple decency. What new Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva needs to do is clear. He must stop this practice, allow immigration officials to reassert control and set up a transparent system to process all refugee claimants.

Bangkok has recently won praise from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for the 'generous' way it operates camps for refugees on its border with Myanmar. This proves the country is capable of conducting a humane policy for refugees while protecting its national interests.

No country wants to open the floodgates to refugee claimants. Hong Kong is no stranger to the problem, having had to deal with Vietnamese boatpeople for a quarter of a century at tremendous cost. Besides the obvious challenges of unwanted refugees, Thailand also has legitimate security concerns. The country is fighting an Islamic insurgency in the south and fears that the Rohingya, who are Sunni Muslims, may end up joining the rebels. Even so, the actions of the Thai military cannot be justified. By turning the migrants back to sea, it is trying to make them the problem of other countries - and endangering lives in the process. Some Rohingya boatpeople have, however, reached Indonesia and Malaysia. What is needed is a multinational strategy to tackle the problem.

Mr Abhisit should raise the issue at next month's summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bangkok. Asean has a reputation for being a mere talking shop. This may be a good opportunity to show it can resolve substantive issues. The government of Bangladesh, from where boats set sail for Thailand, must crack down on the brokers who encourage such journeys.

It has taken a terrible tragedy to highlight how serious this problem has become. Now steps must be taken to resolve it - beginning with humane treatment for the Rohingya migrants who arrive on Thailand's shores.