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The Thai government should immediately end the detention under inhumane conditions of more than 1,700 ethnic Rohingya from Burma, Human Rights Watch said today. Rohingya asylum seekers should be transferred from overcrowded cells in immigration detention centers to get screening and protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Shocking video footage of Rohingya locked up in an overcrowded immigration facility in Thailand’s Phang Nga province was shown on ITN Channel 4 News on May 31, 2013. Thailand’s prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra had agreed in January to permit Rohingya arriving by boat in Thailand to stay temporarily, initially for six months, until they could be safely repatriated to their places of origin or resettled to third countries.

“Thailand should respect the basic rights of Rohingya ‘boat people’ and stop detaining them in horrific conditions,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should immediately allow them to pursue their asylum claims with the UN refugee agency.”

The ITN program showed most of the 276 Rohingya men living in extremely cramped conditions in two cells resembling large cages, each designed to hold only 15 men, where they barely had enough room to sit. Some suffered from swollen feet and withered leg muscles due to lack of exercise. The men said they have not been let out of the cells in five months.

Thai immigration authorities have not permitted UNHCR to conduct refugee status determination screenings of these Rohingya, and instead lock them in overcrowded immigration detention facilities across the country. Rohingya families have been split up, with women and children sent to government-run shelters separate from the men placed in immigration detention.

Each year, tens of thousands of ethnic Rohingya from Burma’s Arakan State set sail to flee persecution by the Burmese government, and dire poverty. The situation has significantly worsened following sectarian violence in Arakan State in June 2012 between Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Arakanese, and later government-backed crimes against humanity committed during a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” in October against Rohingya and other Muslims.

Thailand’s so-called “help on” policy towards small boats carrying Rohingya has failed to provide Rohingya asylum seekers with the protections required under international law, and in some cases significantly increased their risk.

Under this policy, the Thai navy intercepts Rohingya boats that come close to the Thai coast and supposedly provides them with fuel, food, water, and other supplies on the condition that the boats sail onward to Malaysia or Indonesia. Enforcement actions to prevent Rohingya from these vessels from coming ashore intensified after the Thai government responded to international pressure, and agreed to provide temporary shelter for more than 1,700 Rohingya who had arrived in Thailand since January 2013.

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 “non-refoulement” – not to return anyone to places where their life or freedom would be at risk. UNHCR’s Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers reaffirms the basic human right to seek asylum and state that “[a]s a general rule, asylum seekers should not be detained.” The UNHCR Guidelines also note that detention should not be used as a punitive or disciplinary measure, and that detention should not be used as a means of discouraging refugees from applying for asylum.

The Thai government should work closely with UNHCR, which has the technical expertise to screen for refugee status and the mandate to protect refugees and stateless people. Effective UNHCR screening of all Rohingya boat arrivals would help the Thai government determine who is entitled to refugee status.

“Thai authorities should provide temporary protection to Rohingya and scrap the ‘help on’ policy that places these asylum seekers in harm’s way,” Adams said. “The government should help Rohingya who escape from oppression and hardship in Burma – not worsen their plight.”

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