UNHCR seeks access to 126 Muslim Rohingya boat people in Thailand

News Stories, 20 January 2009

© Onasia/P.Charlesworth
A fishing boat moored off Thai islands in the Andaman Sea, where Rohingya boat people were reportedly stopped.

GENEVA, January 20 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday asked the Thai government for access to 126 detained Muslim Rohingya boat people in order to assess their situation and determine whether any of them are in need of international protection.

This follows UNHCR's expression of strong concern to the government last week over allegations that large groups of Rohingya boat people from Myanmar were intercepted in Thai waters, towed out to sea and left to die.

"According to information from our sources, a group of 80 Rohingya boat people are being held on Koh Sai Daeng Island off the Thai coast in the Andaman Sea. A further 46 Rohingya who were intercepted on a boat last Friday were reportedly handed over to Thai military authorities, and we are trying to determine where they are now," said UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond.

"Given the new Thai government's commitment to human rights, we are eager to discuss with Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya ways that this crisis can be defused quickly in line with international humanitarian standards. We have stressed that the Thai government should take all measures to make sure the lives of the Rohingya boat people are not put at risk," Redmond told journalists in Geneva.

He said UNHCR welcomed Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban's announcement in the Thai media on Tuesday that he has ordered the defence minister to investigate accusations of maltreatment of the Rohingya boat people.

The Rohingya are stateless Muslims from northern Rakhine state in Myanmar. There are 28,000 Rohingya recognized refugees in two UNHCR camps in Bangladesh and some 200,000 unregistered Rohingya living outside the camps there. For several years now in this dry season, many of them have been desperate enough to risk their lives at sea in small boats sailing from Bangladesh or Myanmar, often turning up in Thailand, Malaysia or as far away as Indonesia.

Because the plight of the Rohingya is a regional problem, UNHCR is urgently seeking to discuss with the Thai government ways that all concerned countries can address the root causes that impel the Rohingya to put their lives at risk on such perilous journeys.

"We look forward to discussing with Foreign Minister Kasit ways that the new Thai government, given both its key role in the region and its current chairmanship of ASEAN [Association of South-east Asian Nations], can play a vital role in addressing this alarming regional issue," Redmond said.