Thais feel heat over Rohingya jailbreaks

Rohingya Muslims gathering at an immigration detention centre in Thailand's Kanchanaburi province during Ramadan.

THAILAND - A series of jailbreaks has intensified pressure on Thai authorities to remove 1,700 Rohingya from detention centres nationwide even as bigger numbers are expected to set sail from Myanmar's troubled Rakhine region in the coming months.

The detained Rohingya were rounded up in raids early this year, with the men locked up in immigration detention centres and women and children housed separately in shelters.

But cramped conditions in some of the 29 centres and shelters have sparked protests among the detainees as well as a series of high-profile breakouts.

On Aug 31, 20 reportedly escaped from a police station in the Ayutthaya province in central Thailand, just two weeks after more than 80 cut through iron bars and chiselled away at concrete walls to escape from another detention centre in the southern province of Songkhla. The Songkhla breakout was the second there in the same month.

As of mid-August, there were still 1,700 Rohingya under detention.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as well as aid groups say there is an urgent need to find suitable accommodation for the Muslim Rohingya, who are rejected by Myanmar as migrants from Bangladesh and have faced an increasingly bleak future back home ever since sectarian violence flared up in Rakhine state in June last year.

UNHCR spokesman Vivian Tan said: "The immigration detention centres are not built to hold such large numbers of people for a long time. We have appealed for the authorities to urgently move the Rohingya to alternative locations where they can have greater freedom of movement, better access to services like health care and be reunited with their families."

Dr Niran Pitakwatchara, a member of Thailand's National Human Rights Commission, similarly called for a change of policy, saying that the kingdom should be treating the Rohingya arrivals as a humanitarian issue rather than seeing them as a security threat.

The Thai government revealed on Aug 29 that it intended to hold the refugees in detention centres for another six months until January, while their options for relocation were being worked out. It was, however, considering building more permanent shelters for the detained Rohingya.

The UNHCR is "pursuing third-country resettlement options for a small number of the most vulnerable Rohingya", said Ms Tan, but added that resettlement was not a comprehensive solution, given the limited number of places available.

Myanmar, which has embarked on dramatic political and economic reforms in recent years, has not budged from its position on the Rohingya. In an interview with the Washington Post in May, President Thein Sein reiterated that they were not considered part of Myanmar's races, and that they were only "Bengalis who were brought for farming" during British rule.

An estimated 37,000 Rohingya have set sail for other countries since the middle of last year, and the rate of departure is expected to increase, according to the Arakan Project, an advocacy group that has been tracking the Rohingya issue since 2006. Many of them are headed to Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Said Arakan Project coordinator Chris Lewa: "Nobody wants to acknowlege these large numbers of people on the move and nobody knows what to do with them."

tanhy@sph.com.sg

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