Thailand accused of abusing migrants

Human rights groups accuse Thailand of breaking international law by turning hundreds of illegal immigrants, including asylum seekers, back to sea on the rickety boats they arrive in.

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KOLKATA // Human rights groups have accused Thailand of breaking international law by turning hundreds of illegal immigrants, including asylum seekers, back out to sea on the rickety boats they arrived in. They had left Bangladesh in mechanised boats. But the rights groups say, Thai marines destroyed some of the engines and then immigrants were forced to use the same boats with damaged engines as paddle boats.

Most of the 643 Muslim migrants that landed on India's Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Indonesia's Aceh Province over the past three weeks have said they were intercepted by Thai marines as they approached Thailand en route to Malaysia, where they planned to look for work. Indian authorities said 300 of the migrants are still missing and presumed dead based on interviews with survivors. The migrants - Myanmarese refugees in Bangladesh known as Rohingyas and Bangladeshi nationals, all Muslims - said the Thai marines detained them on an isolated island and tortured them for days. They then destroyed the engines of their boats and forced them back out to sea with little food and water.

Thailand's navy yesterday denied the reports. A navy spokesman, Capt Prachachart Sirisawat, said the navy had investigated the allegations following media reports that included photographs showing people lying on a beach with their hands trussed above their heads. "The authorities followed the regular process when arresting the illegal migrants," Capt Prachachart told Agence France-Presse. "The navy has investigated and found more pictures of these 200 illegal migrants later receiving food and water from the authorities," he said.

International and local rights groups condemned Thailand. Washington-based Refugees International called on the Thai Government to "instruct its army to desist from its new and troubling policy of pushing refugees and migrants intercepted on boats back out to sea". "The Thai government is taking highly vulnerable people and risking their lives for political gain. Thailand, instead of pushing the boat people away should be engaging the Burmese government on improving conditions at home for the Rohingya if it wants to stem the flow," said Sean Garcia, who has worked among Rohingyas for years, in a statement.

"The Rohingya will continue to make the journey because they have no hope for a better life in Burma. Pushing them back out to sea is not an effective deterrent - it just jeopardises lives." Indian police rescued three boatloads of the Rohingyas around the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, where they arrived after drifting in search of land for 12 days, mostly without food and water. Senior police officials in Port Blair, the capital of the islands, said they recovered the bodies of five Rohingyas from the Indian waters.

"Many of [the survivors] were badly dehydrated and could not even walk. So, they were taken to hospital where they are being treated," said V Ranganathan, the chief of the criminal investigation department on the islands. "All of them are Muslims and are originally Rohingyas? They look very poor and somehow each of them paid at least 20,000 [Bangladeshi] takas [Dh1,000] to fund their boat trip." Hossain Ahmed, 36, who was rescued by Indian Police on Dec 28 after drifting at sea for 10 days and is now receiving rehydration therapy at Port Blair's G B Pant Hospital, said he was in a group of 207 Rohingyas when they began their journey from Bangladesh in November.

Mr Ahmed, who hails from Myanmar's Arakan province, told police that after being intercepted by Thai forces his group was taken to a desolate island, "where we were tortured - beaten with sticks and kicked by soldiers". Three days later, he said, 208 more Rohingyas on two boats were captured and taken to the island. After being held on the island for a week, Mr Ahmed said, "at gunpoint they loaded 132 of us on a boat and left us in the middle of high sea. Our food and water finished in two days. While we were drifting, 20 among us fell sick and died before we reached [the Andaman & Nicobar Islands] after 11 days.

"I am thankful to Allah that I am still alive." Mohammad, 22, from Arakan, who was among a group of 98 rescued by Indian Coast Guard in Indian waters, told the BBC that some who resisted boarding the boat in Thailand were thrown into the sea with their hands and legs tied and could have drowned right there. "We were left with only 10 kilograms of rice and some water in that huge boat right in the middle of a very choppy sea. Our food and water ran out on the second day and slowly we lost all power to move. Most of those pushed back into the sea by the Thai military have perished? Barely one-fourth of us have survived."

Zaw Win, another Rohingya survivor, said: "Thai soldiers tied up our hands and then put us in boats without engines. These were towed into the high sea by motorised boats and left to drift. We were without food and water. The Thai Marines clearly wanted us to die on the boats." Imam Hussain, 30, who was among 193 survivors found stranded near Weh Island off the northern tip of Aceh Province on Jan 7, told police the Thai Marines destroyed engines of the four boats by which 580 of them, including some women and children, began their journey from Bangladesh.

Speaking to The Jakarta Post, he said Myanmar was not a safe country for Muslims and the community was leaving the country en masse in order to survive. Rohingyas, who need permission from Myanmar's ruling military junta to marry or travel outside of their western Burma state have no legal right to own land and property. About 228,000 Rohingyas from Myanmar's western state of Arakan continue to languish in Bangladesh nearly two decades after they arrived there, while 28,000 of them live in two refugee camps, according to the UNHCR. With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse