Six months on, Rohingya in Thailand struggle to keep hope afloat

News Stories, 2 August 2013

© UNHCR/V.Tan
A UNHCR staff monitors the situation of Rohingya men in Thailand's Ayutthaya immigration detention centre.

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand, August 2 (UNHCR) Every year, millions of tourists flock to Thailand for the sun, sea and shopping. But 17-year-old Saifullah* cries every time he recalls how he got here.

"I still cry when I remember the difficulties on the boat," said the young Rohingya about his 16-day ordeal on the high seas with 178 other men in January. "We were 10 days without food, four days without water. The engine broke down. I thought I might never see land again."

What drives a teenager to leave home and risk his life on an overcrowded boat for an uncertain future in an unknown destination? "I thought, Life is hell in [Myanmar's] Rakhine state, why don't I take a chance somewhere else?" reasoned Saifullah.

Others on the boat share his views. Kamal,* 22, lost his younger brother in last year's inter-communal violence in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. The boy was attacked with a big knife and died shortly after. Kamal and another brother ran and hid in the forest before they made their decision.

"Young men like us cannot stay in Rakhine state because the police can arrest us any time. We cannot go out to work freely," said Kamal, who used to do daily wage labour within the village. "I thought since we are dying there, we might as well go where there is peace."

Together with others in hiding, they rented a boat and paid 15,000 kyat (about US$15) everything they had for the long and arduous journey.

"Sometimes boats would pass and give us rice, chillis or fish that we cooked on the engine," recalled Kamal. "Most of the time, we starved. When we were hungry we would lie down. Sometimes we drank seawater. Many people vomited but no one died. Then the engine failed. We drifted until four small boats pulled us to the coast."

The men were too sick and exhausted to know where they were. Some lay on the ground and were helped by Thai villagers who gave them food and urgent medical care. "I was very weak because I couldn't eat properly," said 17-year-old Zaeed.* "In Thailand they tested my blood and gave me fluids and medicine."

The group of 179 was detained by the Thai authorities and taken to an immigration detention centre (IDC) in Kanchanaburi province, western Thailand. To ease congestion, 16 of them were transferred to the IDC in Ayutthaya in central Thailand after a month.

Kamal appreciates the extra space in Ayutthaya and the fact that the men can take turns leaving the cell to exercise or to help with cleaning the centre. The local Muslim community and college students bring supplementary food on a regular basis. One IDC worker's mother brings them fruit juice.

"The staff give us everything we ask for. They say if we are happy, they are happy," said Kamal. "But I'm worried about my younger brother who is still in Kanchanaburi IDC. I don't know how he is doing."

While the men are thankful for the understanding shown by IDC staff and the local community, they are increasingly stressed by the lack of news about the families they left behind and the prospect of prolonged detention. They spend their days praying, reciting the Koran, crying and trying to sleep, though no one has slept much in the last six months.

"I cannot think anything about my future," said Saifullah. "I don't know how long we will be here. If one day we are released, we can work and make a living. I can't go back to Myanmar until there is peace."

Kamal agrees. "I won't go back to Myanmar now. But if there is peace and free movement, of course I'll go to my homeland," he said. "We want only one thing a place where we can move freely, work and survive. We're not asking for much."

Kamal, Saifullah and Zaeed are among some 2,000 Rohingya men, women and children who have been granted temporary protection in Thailand and are staying in immigration detention centres and shelters for women and children.

UNHCR has appealed to the Thai authorities to move them to a location that allows for family reunification and greater freedom of movement until longer-term solutions can be found.

The situation in Myanmar's Rakhine state remains tense and not conducive for return. More than a year after the first wave of communal violence broke out, some 140,000 people remain internally displaced, the large majority of them Rohingya.

* Names changed for protection reasons.

By Vivian Tan in Ayutthaya, Thailand