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Rohingya refugees sit behind bars at a police station in Satun province, Thailand, June 12, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo

(Bangkok) – Thai authorities should allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) unhindered access to Rohingya from Myanmar to determine whether they qualify for refugee status, Human Rights Watch said today. The government’s inhumane policy of holding Rohingya arriving in Thailand in indefinite detention should be immediately repealed.

The latest group of Rohingya arrived in Thailand by land, crossing from Myanmar into Mae Sot district of Tak province on May 20, 2020. Thai authorities arrested at least 12 Rohingya and sent them to the Mae Sot immigration detention facility. Approximately 200 Rohingya are being held in immigration detention and other facilities across Thailand.

“The Thai government should scrap its policy of summarily locking up Rohingya and throwing away the key, condemning them to indefinite detention in cramped and unhygienic detention centers now susceptible to a Covid-19 outbreak,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Rohingya have been brutally persecuted in Myanmar. Thailand should permit the UN refugee agency to screen all Rohingya arriving in Thailand to identify and assist those seeking refugee status.”

Refugee screening is crucial for protecting Rohingya asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said. The Myanmar government and military have long persecuted the Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority group who have lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine State for generations. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, who have been effectively denied citizenship in Myanmar, have fled repression and dire poverty. Human trafficking gangs have abused and exploited many of those who eluded death during their dangerous journey.

The situation has significantly worsened since August 2017, when the Myanmar military committed ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya, driving as many as 740,000 into exile in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Responsibility for the security of the Rohingya rests primarily with the Myanmar government, but extends to the countries where they seek refuge, Human Rights Watch said. Like its predecessors, the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha has treated Rohingya arriving at the border as illegal immigrants, subject to detention in squalid immigration lockups. The government has not permitted UNHCR to conduct refugee status determinations for them. Thailand also discriminates against Rohingya by refusing to allow them to register as legally documented migrant workers, unlike other people coming from Myanmar.

Thai authorities have for years said they do not want to treat Rohingya as asylum seekers. However, under international law, Thailand cannot summarily disregard the claims of asylum seekers who arrive at its borders. Thailand is obligated to allow them to enter the country and seek protection.

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

Under international law, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution. Immigration detention should be an exceptional measure of last resort, for the shortest period, and only if justified by a legitimate purpose. Detention imposed automatically or otherwise not pursued for a legitimate purpose is considered arbitrary.

“Thailand should help the oppressed Rohingya from Myanmar, not worsen their suffering,” Adams said. “The Thai government should recognize the plight of Rohingya and allow them access to desperately needed protection.”

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