Fifty-three Rohingya "boat people" have been detained in isolated Thai prisons since 2009. Their crime? Fleeing brutal persecution in their homeland of Burma. In late January, Thailand nabbed another 158 Rohingya who had survived a harrowing journey on ramshackle home-made boats. Thai officials threw them directly into prison.
Despite the known mistreatment of Rohingya in Burma, the Thai government is refusing to recognize the migrants as refugees. Worse, it is blocking the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from visiting the detained Rohingya, thus sequestering them from any legal defense or opportunity for protection.
Under international law, any migrant who can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution must be granted refugee or asylum status, which offers ongoing protection in a new land. Burma's oppressive military regime has repeatedly cleansed its country of ethnic groups like the Rohingya — so the detainees' eligibility for refugee status is, in all likelihood, a no brainer.
Yet Thailand has a horrific track record of denying basic rights to refugees seeking safety within its borders. When another group of of Rohingya washed up on Thai shores in 2009, Thai officials didn't cart them off to prison but opted, instead, to just drag them back out to sea. Refugee camps like Tham Him and Mae La house thousands of refugees from Burma (including Rohingya, Karen, and Karenni). Thailand does allow the international community access to the camps provided, however, that refugees never leave the prison — er, I mean camp — perimeters.
The Rohingya, who live in conditions that seasoned relief workers have called "the most miserable on earth," have had bum luck for years. Rohingya refugees living in destitute camps in Bangladesh or in Malaysia's city slums take harrowing journeys on foot and in ramshackle rafts in search of basic human rights.
Enough is enough. Tell Thailand's Minister of Foreign Affairs to measure up to the basic principles of human rights when it comes to immigration and refugee protection. For starters, Thailand should give the United Nations access to the detained migrants. What are they so afraid of?