'Human cargo in need of compassion'
A long-time activist for the Rohingya stands behind a plea made last week before parliament calling for the government to take a more humanitarian stance towards the ethnic group who are easy prey for trafficking gangs
'Why is this not human trafficking? If this is not human trafficking, what else could it be?'' asked an emotional Abdul Kalam, coordinator of Thailand's Rohingya National Organisation. He was referring to the decision last Monday to repatriate Rohingya from Myanmar's Rakhine state. The National Security Council, along with the Foreign Ministry, ruled that human trafficking plays no part in the rickety boats full of Rohingya that have washed up on Thai shores because there was no evidence of slave labour, forced prostitution or forced begging. Therefore the Rohingya can stay a maximum of six months in Thailand before they are sent back to Myanmar.
STILL DRIFTING: Left and below left, Rohingya refugees pack a boat headed to Malaysia last week as the boat is boarded by Thai Navy officers offering assistance close to Phuket island.
Abdul Kalam, a Rohingya who left Myanmar 30 years ago and entered Thailand at Tak's Mae Sot district, told Spectrum last week he estimates that, besides the highly publicised boat people, some 3,000 to 4,000 Rohingya live as illegal immigrants in Thailand, mostly in Bangkok.
Mr Kalam is registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and thus has the right to stay here and earn a living. But he has never forgotten his roots and has worked for several years to help Rohingya who have fallen victim to traffickers. His group is an offshoot of the Burmese (Myanmar) Rohingya Association in Thailand, whose president, Maung Kyaw Nu, on Wednesday made a plea before the parliament's committee on law, judiciary and human rights for the government to grant temporary asylum to Rohingya here and for the international community to intervene on behalf of the minority in Myanmar.
Maung Kyaw Nu told the committee that Rohingya migrants pay 60,000 baht to 65,000 baht each to smugglers to get into Thailand,
Mr Kalam told Spectrum: ''There are networks. We have reported the authorities involved in trafficking several times over the years. But the problem remains unsolved. More and more Rohingya become victims.''
Abdul Kalam, coordinator of Thailand’s Rohingya National Organisation.
On Jan 10, police rounded up more than 300 Rohingya at a remote plantation in Songkhla's Sadoa district. The incident, coming on the heels of widespread mob violence directed at Rohingya in Rakhine state, brought renewed attention to the long-standing problem from local and international humanitarian organisations, including the UNHCR, as well as foreign governments. This in turn increased pressure on the Thai government to come up with solutions other than to criminalise the group.
According to figures from the Department of Special Investigation, 1,225 Rohingya were arrested in 2007; 2,763 in 2008; and 4,886 in 2009. Considered to be illegal migrants, they were deported bak to Myanmar.
''Rohingya have been locked up in camps and some have been physically assaulted,'' said Mr Kalam. ''They have been traded among trafficking gangs and those looking for cheap labour.''
Most of the Rohingya who have arrived in Thailand are men between the ages of 15 and 50 years old, and it's believed they are headed for work in Malaysia and in the Middle East.
Lately the situation has become complicated with the presence of more children and women, some of them pregnant.
Mr Kalam said that just about all Rohingya leave Myanmar willingly, expecting a safer and better life. It is not until their journey is halfway complete that they realise they are in the hands of traffickers who are often ruthless.
There is an agreement among academics, international organisations and even Thai security agencies that trafficking of Rohingya is a reality and should not be tolerated. ''We've learned that each man can be traded for as much as 30,000 to 40,000 baht. What else do we need to prove that they are victims of human trafficking gangs?'' asked Mr Kalam. But despite many reports giving examples of trafficking only a few people have been arrested for the crime. ''We do not know how the legal process is going ... I am afraid that they'll be set free because there is not enough evidence,'' said Mr Kalam.
BEHIND BARS: This man held at Thung Lung police station in Hat Yai district is one of 843 Rohingya detained in Songkhla in the past two weeks.
''However, I am certain that the rescued Rohingya should be able to identify them [the traffickers] if the authorities really want to take legal action against them.''
ADEQUATE SHELTERS NEEDED
At present, about 1.400 Rohingya reside in different centres in the South, mostly in Muslim communities. However, most of these centres are overcrowded. More than 50 women and children at an overcrowded welfare centre in Phangnga province were sent to Surat Thani, while other Rohingya in the South have been transferred to centres in Prachuap Khiri Khan and Kanchanaburi province.
Military authorities have strongly disagreed with establishing shelters or camps for the Rohingya, but securities agencies including the National Security Council have proposed that the government build three detentions centres in Songkhla and Ranong. However, individual Rohingya would still be be subject to deportation after six months in the country.
In Ranong, which has dealt with a large influx of illegal migrants from Myanmar for several years, moves to build temporary shelters have been met with protests.
On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul asked for help from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to find solutions to the problem and led about 15 diplomats from the group on a tour of a temporary shelter for about 100 Rohingya women and children in Songkhla's Muang district.
''If possible, we would like to send them back to their place of origin or a third country,'' Mr Surapong told the group.
Mr Kalam said that bigger shelters for Rohingya are urgently needed with better living conditions. ''These are not criminals, they are victims of trafficking gangs,'' he said. He said it was important that they be allowed to stay together, especially families, and cited cases in which children had been separated from their parents to live in different centres.
Mr Kalam, who had just returned from a visit to Phangnga province where a group of 110 Rohingya were picked up from Mu Ko Surin Marine National Park, said he has hopes the system will soon be better coordinated. ''The sooner we set up an efficient system the better, because it's certain many more will be leaving their homes in Rakhine state,'' he said.
He is concerned about the six-month timeframe proposed by Thai authorities, saying it is not enough time to sort out the Rohingya's problems and arrange for third countries to receive them.
''One thing is certain, they do not want to be deported back to Myanmar. If they are deported, they will come back again,'' he said.
He urged a case-by-case approach to determine each migrant's status and desired destination. However, he added that he had talked to many Rohingya who really had no set destination, saying ''it is up to Allah''. Nevertheless, many have relatives in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia or other countries they would like to
He said a proper resettlement process in Thailand would take at least a year, and that to lessen the burden on the government and the public, international organisations, especially the UNHCR, should be given full access to the Rohingya in temporary shelters and work with third countries to arrange for their resettlement.
When asked if providing temporary shelters in Thailand would encourage more Rohingya to make the journey from Rakhine state, Mr Kalam said this is doubtful and that the driving force for the exodus is ''the genocide that has been going on'' in Rakhine state. ''No one wants to live in shelters anywhere,'' he said, adding that some of those rescued here had come from refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Mr Kalam said he is concerned that if Rohingya in Thailand are left without proper care and guidance it could lead to a security problem for the Thai government. ''If they are left unattended without any future, they will be at risk of being lured into doing bad things,'' he said. He said that with help from Thai authorities and local communities _ both Muslim and Buddhist _ there is hope for the future of Rohingya refugees and also those who remain in Myanmar.
RESILIENT YOUTH: Rohingya children detained at a Social Development and Welfare Department shelter in Songkhla’s Muang district take part in activities intended to boost their morale.
About the author
- Writer: Tunya Sukpanich