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It’s time to get tough with Rohingya smugglers _Bangkok Post 12 Feb2013

It’s time to get tough with Rohingya smugglers
Published: 12 Feb 2013 at 00.00Newspaper section: News

Thailand has always been firm in its refusal to confront the problem of human trafficking and to address the humanitarian challenges of the Rohingya boat people.

But with women and young children now among the boat people fleeing from violence in Myanmar, their tears and hopelessness captured by photos that spread around the world have made it more difficult for Thailand to avoid the pressure from human rights groups.

Certainly, it is easy to make demands on Thailand to treat the stateless Rohingya more humanely. But what about other actors, namely Myanmar, Bangladesh, the United Nations, and other Asean countries? Should they be allowed to continue to stay adrift from this regional and chronic problem? Myanmar, especially, since it is where the Rohingya are coming from.

The Yingluck government, as advised by the National Security Council, has bought time to “think about” the Rohingya issue for another six months. To tackle the problem effectively, however, Thailand needs to flex its muscles in front of Myanmar without worrying about economic repercussions.

The government also needs to punish officials involved in human trafficking, and not just the small fish _ the big ones too.

As for the UN agencies, they should realise that their stock comment that they cannot do much to intervene since Thailand is not a party to the Refugee Convention is not an acceptable excuse for inaction.

It’s time for them to roll up their sleeves and get involved instead of blaming and shaming countries here and there.

Less than two months into 2013, Thai authorities had arrested 1,752 Rohingya boat people. Of these, 1,442 of them were men and 310 women and children. These figures are higher than in previous years.

Myanmar Ambassador Tin Win, however, has bluntly denied that either Thai or UN agencies have contacted him or Nay Pyi Taw about the Rohingya issue.

As there is no legal refugee status in Thailand, these people are undergoing legal procedures under the 1979 Immigration Act. The men are put under the care of the Immigration Police Bureau, while the women and children are put under the care of the provincial Human Security and Social Development offices.

The Rohingya are being sheltered in nearly 10 provinces in the South, the East and the Northeast.

On the surface, it seems clear who is doing what. The Foreign Ministry is seeking cooperation from the country of origin to issue documents confirming the citizenship of the Rohingya for repatriation purposes, while at the same time coordinating with other countries to resettle the boat people.

The locals, mostly Muslim ummahs, have also shown mercy and solidarity with the Rohingya by supplying them with food and other essentials.

I am afraid, however, that this sympathy and public interest will soon subside, as it has done in previous years.

Two Rohingya detainees died in 2009 under the custody of the immigration department in Ranong, which put the spotlight on the alleged maltreatment of desperate refugees who are classified here as “illegal immigrants”.

Despite international condemnation, Thailand has not come up with a comprehensive policy to deal with the sticky Rohingya issue.

Only when stories emerge of corruption in dealing with immigrants is the government forced to do something.

We should be happy about the raids in Songkhla’s Padang Besar border town which rescued Rohingya captives, but the subsequent orchestrated refusal by all agencies to accept that the Rohingya in this year’s exodus were victims of human trafficking was simply too hasty.

These denials have been made without consulting data and conducting in-depth investigations to differentiate this year’s Rohingya immigrants from the previous years’.

The government’s move is understandable. It simply does not want to complicate the issue when preparing its annual trafficking report to the US State Department.

Filing a trafficking lawsuit under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2008 requires a combination of factors to fit the crime. It must include transfer, recruitment and exploitation through force of threats. Also, the procedures involving the victims are lengthier and more complicated.

Yet to quickly conclude that this is not a case of human trafficking when the situation remains unclear is tantamount to allowing corrupt officials and the masterminds of the human trafficking/smuggling rackets to escape scot-free.

In my recent field trips to Satun and Songkla, I interviewed a number of Rohingya and identified some common stories.

– The situation in Myanmar has grown increasingly dangerous for the Rohingya.

For example, 12-year-old Mohammad Suku, from Rakhine’s Valaden township, said his family had to stay in a temporary shelter after the houses and communities of the Rohingya were torched. He then decide to join the exodus to find a better place to live, even though it meant risking his life.

– Brokers of different nationalities are involved in the process of smuggling/trafficking, including Thai authorities.

Mohammad Ayub, 15, from Rakhine’s Maungdo township, said the Rohingya have to pay between 20,000 and 60,000 kyat (700-2,100 baht) to board a rickety boat. His boat was cramped with 73 people and their food supplies ran out after a week at sea. They were not rescued until three days later, after which they were moved about from place to place by Thai officials until their rescue.

He said the officials did not assault his group or force them to work, but held them captive while transferring them to the brokers who would sell them on to Malaysian employers.

While waiting for this re-selling process, Mohammad said the brokers would beat those Rohingya who could not contact their family members to pay a “ransom” of 50,000 baht.

There are other similar stories. While waiting for an effective solution that involves all stakeholders to tackle the Rohingya problem, Thailand should lead by reining in the big fish in the people trafficking/smuggling rackets.

Or is this just a pipe dream?

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