Thailand has sent about 1,300 Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, a top official said yesterday, dismaying rights campaigners who warned that the minority Muslims face persecution in the former junta-ruled country.
Thousands of Rohingya, described by the United Nations as among the world's most persecuted minorities, have fled sectarian violence in western Myanmar in rickety boats since 2012, mostly heading for Malaysia.
About 2,000 who arrived in Thai waters were locked up in overcrowded immigration prisons or held in shelters for women and children.
Thai authorities began deporting the Rohingya in September through a border checkpoint in the province of Ranong, national immigration chief Lieutenant General Pharnu Kerdlarpphon said. "The whole deportation process was completed in early November," he added.
It was the first official news of the deportation. It is unclear what happened to them after they left. Rights activists criticised the move to return them to Myanmar, where they face travel restrictions, forced labour and limited access to health care and education.
"The deportation of Rohingya is a blatant violation of international laws that prohibit sending back refugees and asylum seekers to a place where they can face danger and persecution," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Rights groups say the Rohingya often fall into the hands of people-traffickers, sometimes after they are deported.
Sunai urged the Thai authorities to explain what had happened to the 1,300 Rohingya, saying the foreign ministry did not appear to have been involved in the deportation.
But National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabut said the majority of the Rohingya had wanted to leave Thailand.
"Most of them volunteered to go back because Thailand was not their destination anyway," he said. "We facilitated their return and I am sure that in Myanmar they have their place."
Thailand said last year it was investigating allegations that some army officials in the kingdom were involved in the trafficking of Rohingya.