Rohingya refugees belong to a Muslim ethnic minority that inhabits an area along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, especially in the Rakhine State (formerly Arakan) in western Myanmar.
Because of persecution and abuses by Myanmar’s ruling military junta, many Rohingya have fled, seeking refuge along the western coast of Thailand. Once in the country they have been rounded up and arrested by the military, detained for some time before being put on canoes without any engine or sail and towed into international waters where they have been abandoned.
“The Thai government is taking highly vulnerable people and risking their lives for political gain,” advocate Sean Garcia said. Instead it “should be engaging the Burmese [Myanmese] government on improving conditions at home for the Rohingya if it wants to stem these flows.”
The Rohingya have taken to the sea because they are desperate. “They have no hope for a better life in Burma. Pushing them back out to sea is not an effective deterrent,” Mr Garcia explained.
They “are stateless and have no rights inside Burma. The Burmese government targets them for forced labour and extortion, and restricts their movement.” Until they “are recognised by Burma as citizens, neighbouring countries like Thailand must protect and assist this vulnerable population.”
Reports indicate a rising tide of Rohingya refugee fleeing towards neighbouring countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, so much so that their fate is at the centre of regional diplomatic discussions. The refugee issue will in fact be on the agenda at next month's ASEAN summit in Thailand.
In the meantime a total of 412 boatpeople were taken on 18 December to international waters north of Koh Surin (Surin Island), off the coast of Thailand, and left there, an anonymous source said.
Rohingya refugees preferably leave from November to April when the seas are at their calmest to escape the repression of Myanmar’s military regime.
According to official figures, 1,225 arrived in Thailand in 2005-2006. They were 2,763 in 2006-2007 and 4,886 in 2007-2008, and the numbers keep rising. From 26 November to 25 December last year, 659 Rohingya were seized in eight separate incidents.