Thailand has ignored Rohingyas' misery for too long

An official pours water for suspected Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh at Rattaphum district hall in Thailand's southern Songkhla province May 9, 2015

Govenrment officials should not pretend they have just learned that people calling themselves "Rohingya" have fled from somewhere via trafficking networks to Thailand.

Thai authorities under the military government of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha are handling the issue of trafficking in Rohingya as if these unfortunate people have just arrived from Mars.

The government badly needs a comprehensive approach to cope with this complicated and tragic issue.

Although the origin of the Rohingya it is still debatable - this ethnic group has lived north-west of Myanmar, mostly in the state of Rakhine, for the entire memory of our generation. Myanmar has refused to recognise them as national citizens and calls them illegal migrant Bengalis.

More than 1.5-2 million Rohingya were forced to leave their homes during Myanmar independence in 1948, due to differences in race and religion, according to the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation, a group of social activists who champion their rights.

However, two million are still living in Myanmar while hundreds of thousands are moving along the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

A major exodus of Rohingya has happened twice since Myanmar independence: once in 1978 when the military regime of Ne Win launched the Naga Min (Dragon King) operation to check 'illegal migrants'; and again in early 1990 after a military crackdown on democratic movement.

The current wave of Rohingya movement began without notice more than a decade ago when they sought better lives in Southeast Asia. Malaysia is their destination of choice but Thailand is the regional transit hub due to loose border control and corrupt officials.

The refugee movement came to public notice in early 2009, when some received brutal treatment from Thai authorities (when vessels were allegedly pushed back to sea).

And problems in Rakhine State were exacerbated three years later when Muslim Rohingya clashed with Buddhist Rakhine. The violence displaced over 100,000 people who ended up in refugee camps.

With the emergence of human trafficking syndicates, it is estimated that more than 100,000 Rohingya have managed to settle in Southeast Asia.

Their adventures were not at all smooth. Usually, they had to pay between US$90 (Bt3,000) and $370 (Bt12,500) for the "boat fee" to board a vessel, but they could not get off unless another $2,000 was paid, according to a United Nations report.

They were pressured, starved, beaten to extort payment from families and relatives to facilitate their travel. Those who had no relatives to pay, told the UN they worked as labourers for smugglers for several months in order to secure their freedom.

Some were forced to work in hard conditions on fishery trawlers and farms to repay their debts from trafficking expenses. Some others were held in brutal jungle camps in Southern Thailand, pending payment.

It is too naive to say that Thai security officials knew nothing about these matters. Unless officials took bribes to allow them to continue their dangerous journey, they would be brutally deported and left to starve on the high seas.

Of more than 50 traffickers facing arrest warrants from Thai police, many are uniformed officials of many agencies.

But, this could not stop them. By the end of the monsoon season in October, Rohingya sometimes mixed with Bangladeshis to begin their risky voyage in the Gulf of Bengal to Southeast Asia.

In the first quarter of this year, 25,000 people were estimated to have departed in irregular maritime movements from the Bay of Bengal.

The departure rate in the period was approximately double the departure rate reported in the first quarters of 2013 and 2014, according to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) report. More than 300 died in the sea during the first quarter of this year, accumulating a total of 620 since last October, the report said.

The on-going Thai crackdown - aimed to please the United States for the benefit of upgrading Thailand's status in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report - might not always yield good results.

The International Organisation for Migration estimated there could be as many as 8,000 boat people stranded at sea in the Gulf of Bengal as the smugglers are reluctant to land.

Thai officials arrested, prosecuted and deported dozens of them over the past weeks after launching the crackdown on traffickers. Their fates are unknown.