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(New York) – The Thai government should immediately halt its plan to deport 73 ethnic Rohingya back to Burma, Human Rights Watch said today. Thai authorities should allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, unhindered access to these and other boat migrants from Burma’s Arakan State to determine whether they are seeking asylum and whether they are qualified for refugee status.

On January 1, 2013, near Bon Island in Phuket province, Thai authorities intercepted a boatload of 73 Rohingya migrants – including as many as 20 children, some as young as 3 – that contained likely asylum seekers. After providing food, water, and other supplies to the passengers and refueling the boat, Thai authorities initially planned to push the boat back to sea en route to Malaysia’s Langkawi Island. When they found that the rickety, overcrowded boat had cracks and that many passengers were too weak to endure a stormy sea voyage, the authorities brought the group ashore to the Phuket Immigration Office. By 4 p.m. on January 2, two trucks with all 73 Rohingya were heading to Ranong province for deportation to Burma.

“The Thai government should scrap its inhumane policy of summarily deporting Rohingya, who have been brutally persecuted in Burma, and honor their right to seek asylum,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “UNHCR should be permitted to screen all Rohingya arriving in Thailand to identify and assist those seeking refugee status.”

The Thai government’s so-called “help on” policy fails to provide Rohinya asylum seekers with protection required under international law, and in some cases increases their risk, Human Rights Watch said. Under this policy, the Thai navy is under orders to intercept Rohingya boats that come too close to the Thai coast. Upon intercepting a boat, officials provide the boat with fuel, food, water, and other supplies on condition that the boats sail onward to Malaysia or Indonesia. All passengers must remain on their own boats during the re-supply.

Should a boat land on Thai soil or be found to be unsafe, Thai immigration officials will step in to enforce deportation by land. This “soft deportation” process has resulted in Rohingya being sent across the Thai-Burma border at Ranong province, where people smugglers await deported Rohingya to exact exorbitant fees to transport them to Malaysia. Those unable to pay the smuggling fees are forced into labor to pay off the fees, condemning them to situations amounting to human trafficking.

“Thailand has repeatedly stated its commitment to combat human trafficking, yet by deporting Rohingya into the hands of people smugglers, they are making them vulnerable to trafficking,” Adams said.

In January 2009 Thailand’s National Security Council, led by then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, authorized the navy to intercept incoming Rohingya boats and detain the passengers before pushing them back to sea. Later that year, Thai security forces were captured on video towing boats with Rohingya out to sea, which the government initially denied, but which Abhisit later conceded, saying, “I have some reason to believe some of this happened.” While the recent “help on” strategy has meant that intercepted boats are re-provisioned, the Thai navy is still pushing back to sea boats filled with Rohingya, with some deadly results.

Thailand’s response to arriving Rohingya asylum seekers contrasts sharply with the policy in Malaysia, where the authorities have routinely allowed the UN refugee agency access to arriving Rohingya. Those recognized by the agency as refugees are released from immigration detention.

Burmese authorities have long persecuted the Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority group who have lived in Burma for generations. Government and military authorities in Arakan State regularly apply severe restrictions on the Rohingya’s freedom of movement, assembly, and association, levy demands for forced labor, engage in religious persecution, and confiscate land and resources. Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law effectively denies the Rohingya citizenship, leaving them stateless.

Each year hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in Burma’s Arakan State flee repression by the Burmese military government and dire poverty. The situation significantly worsened in late 2012 following communal violence in June and October targeting Rohingya and other Muslim groups. The arrival of 73 Rohingya in Phuket province on January 1 was the first acknowledged interception that included women and children on board. Many more boats are expected to set sail from Burma in the coming months.

Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. While Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation of “nonrefoulement” – not to return anyone to a place where their life or freedom would be at risk.

The Thai government should ensure that its laws and procedures recognize the protection needs of ethnic Rohingya, Human Rights Watch said. UNHCR has the technical expertise to screen for refugee status and the mandate to protect refugees and stateless people. Effective UNHCR screening of all boat arrivals would help the Thai government determine who is entitled to refugee status.

“Refugee screening is crucial for protecting Rohingya asylum seekers, and the Thai government should allow this critical process,” Adams said. “Until UNHCR is allowed to conduct refugee screening, the Thai government should halt forcible returns of Rohingya boat people.”

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