Thursday, January 22, 2009

UN Seeks Interviews with Rohingyas Held by Thailand

The Irrawaddy News

The Thai government has refused an initial request by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to talk directly with Burmese Muslim Rohingya boat people, saying the agency should first establish guidelines with Thai authorities.

"The agency should come and talk to us about how to work together. Our work together should be based on cooperation and appropriate rules," Thailand's prime minister told reporters, adding that he wanted to discuss the matter with the Burmese government also.

Leading human rights groups, such as International Refugees and Human Rights Watch, claim that the Thai navy mistreated Rohingya boat people from Burma, forcing many back out to sea with little food and water. The groups said as many as 300 Rohingya are missing.

On Tuesday, the UNHCR asked the Thai government to grant access to the boat people for interviews. The agency said it believes 126 Rohingya are in the custody of Thai authorities.

However, Kitty McKinsey, a spokesperson for the UNHCR in Bangkok, told The Irrawaddy that the UNHCR has welcomed the prime minister's comment, but, “We haven’t received any formal statement from the government yet.”

According to Thailand's English-language daily, Bangkok Post, 4,880 Rohingya have been arrested for illegally entering the Thailand, and 90 percent are still waiting for repatriation.

Since the early 1990s, a rising number of Rohingya refugees have taken to boats, many not sea worthy, and fled Burma and Bangladesh for political and economic reasons, trying to reach Thailand and Malaysia.

Experts say the number of boat people may increase this year due to the impact of the global economic downturn on one of the poorest regions of Asia.

"A more viable and long-term solution to the problem of cross-border illegal immigrants would be for countries in the region—Burma, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand—to sit together and address the problem in earnest, possibly with participation of the UNHCR," said a recent editorial in Bangkok Post.

Burmese refugees participate in a demonstration outside the office of the
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,
Wednesday. (Photo: AP)

Meanwhile, at least 50 Burmese demonstrated on Wednesday outside the UNHCR office in Malaysia to protest against alleged discrimination by the agency.

Aung Kyaw Moe, 37, the protest group's spokesperson, told AFP news agency: "They divided us along ethnic group lines and won't allow some of us to enter the UNHCR office," he said, saying it was causing ethnic tension among the various refugee communities. The UNHCR has denied allegations that it discriminates between ethnic groups.

The majority of asylum-seekers in Malaysia are Rohingya Muslims while the rest are Christian Chins, Karen and Shan.

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