(New York) - Thailand should immediately allow the United Nations refugee agency unhindered access to 211 detained ethnic Rohingya asylum seekers to determine whether they qualify for refugee status, Human Rights Watch said today.

A group of 158 Rohingyas from Burma arrived in Thailand on January 22 and 23, 2011, after a perilous sea voyage in rickety, overcrowded boats. They joined 53 others detained since 2009 in the Thai immigration detention system. The Thai authorities have repeatedly refused to give the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to the detainees.

"The persecution of Rohingyas in Burma is atrocious, but the Thai government continues to pretend that they are no different from any other undocumented migrant," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Thailand should reverse course and immediately allow UNHCR to interview all detained Rohingya to identify those seeking refugee status."

Thailand's response to the Rohingya contrasts sharply with Malaysia's, where the authorities allowed UNHCR to visit and assess the cases of 93 detained Rohingya whose boat was intercepted in March 2010. UNHCR concluded that all were refugees. The Malaysian authorities released them from immigration detention.

"As a new member of the UN Human Rights Council, Thailand should be spearheading regional efforts to protect refugees rather than detaining them," Adams said. "If Malaysia can comply with international refugee protection standards, why can't Thailand?"

Burmese authorities have systematically persecuted the Rohingya, a Muslim minority who live primarily in western Arakan state, for more than 30 years, but governments from donor countries and from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have said little, and done even less to end these abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Among the abuses the Rohingya face are extrajudicial killings, forced labor, religious persecution, and restrictions on movement, all exacerbated by a draconian citizenship law that leaves the Rohingya stateless.

The Burmese government's violent and discriminatory treatment of the Rohingya, which contributes to their chronic poverty, has forced as many as 300,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, where they live in primitive and squalid conditions in official and makeshift refugee camps. Because Bangladesh authorities do not give unregistered Rohingya official resident or work papers, they live in fear of arrest, long-term detention, and possible repatriation to Burma. Every year thousands of Rohingya men and boys pay brokers to leave Burma and Bangladesh.

Human Rights Watch noted that in previous years, some boats landing in Thailand have carried both Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals pretending to be Rohingya. Effective UNHCR screening would help the Thai authorities separate genuine refugee claims by Rohingya from other claims.

"The Thai government should take advantage of the expertise of UNHCR, which has repeatedly told the authorities it is ready to help screen Rohingya asylum seekers," Adams said. "By doing so, Thailand can put itself in a strong position with its international partners to seek a longer term, sustainable solution for the Rohingya that starts with ensuring their rights are protected inside Burma."