Rohingya returnee counts his blessings
Returnee Rohingya refugee Enamul Haque has been beaten by soldiers in Myanmar and detained for more than a year in Thailand after attempting to flee Bangladesh, but the 22-year-old still considers himself 'lucky'.
Talking after his repatriation from a Bangkok immigration jail to his home village yesterday near Cox's Bazaar on the Bangladesh coast, Haque said his fate would have been far worse had he fled a month earlier.
'Some months ago one Bangladeshi official explained [to] us inside the jail how many hundreds of the boatpeople died in the sea after being tortured by Thai soldiers,' Haque said.
'If we had reached Thai waters a month before I would have surely been tortured and could have been among the dead in the sea. I am really lucky.'
Haque fled with 78 others on January 3 last year in a boat filled mostly with Muslim Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, where UN officials say the systemic persecution they face is among the worst that exists anywhere.
By the time his boat was found drifting by the Thai navy on January 23, Thailand had started scrapping a controversial military policy of detaining arriving Rohingya on isolated islands before towing them back out to sea and abandoning them in the Andaman Sea in powerless boats.
At least 1,190 were abandoned in such a fashion. Hundreds are dead or presumed so.
Haque's group, however, was detained by police in a glare of publicity as Thailand tried to silence international condemnation in the wake of a series of reports by the South China Morning Post. They were held in appalling conditions in a jail in Ranong, north of Phuket. Two young men died, forcing the rest of the group's transfer to the main Bangkok immigration detention centre from where they were finally released on Wednesday.
For Haque and 27 others verified as Bangladeshi nationals, it ended a year-long nightmare. A further 55 remain in limbo in indefinite detention pending further investigation - including six teenage boys.
While the UN refugee agency yesterday praised the Thai government for allowing the release of the men, it remains concerned about the detention of others.
For years, conservative Muslim Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar's northern Rakhine state. Denied basic residence documents, they have difficulties legally marrying, moving villages or finding work.
Haque also told how their boat was intercepted by the Myanmese navy just one or two days before reaching the Thai coast.
They were detained for six days and beaten before being towed out to sea again. Their engine faltered after just two hours, leaving them to drift for six days before they were rescued by the Thai navy who took them to a hospital for medical treatment before their detention.
'The Burmese soldiers took us to Myanmar ... where we were beaten,' Haque said. 'We said we were on our way to Thailand and we had no intention to stay or transit through Myanmar.'
Their release was funded by Thai-based charities, which paid for air tickets to Dhaka, new clothes and a small amount of spending money.
Thai foreign ministry officials confirmed the repatriation after Bangladeshi authorities were able to verify that the men were from Bangladesh.
'Their citizenship was verified and I think this could be seen as a good example of taking back the Rohingya,' Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakdi said.
'We will continue working with other countries to verify citizenship and resolve this issue.'
No timetable exists, however, and a UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman said the agency was 'greatly concerned' at the others still languishing in detention.
'We are very grateful to the Thai government for allowing their release,' spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey said. 'But obviously our focus must remain on the others who remain ... their indefinite detention is of great concern.'
Those remaining are believed to be from Myanmar, making the process of confirming their nationality more difficult than if they were from Bangladesh. The nature of the persecution by Myanmar's junta means few have identity or nationality papers.
Their plight is also complicated by the fact that Thailand does not allow Rohingya to be 'screened in' as refugees by the UNHCR - a process which could speed their eventual resettlement in a third country.
'This means that at the moment they are in limbo but we are working hard with the Thai authorities and other countries to find a solution,' McKinsey said.
'UNHCR policy is clear - any returns of Rohingya should be strictly voluntary.'
Few of those remaining are expected to volunteer to go back to Myanmar anytime soon, despite the pain of indefinite detention. And even if they did, it is unlikely Myanmar's government - which does not accept Rohingya as an official minority group - would accept them.