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No hiding place for Rohingya asylum seekers in Thailand

After fleeing persecution in Myanmar, they face indefinite detention like Pakistani Christians before them

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Updated: January 11, 2021 04:01 AM GMT
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No hiding place for Rohingya asylum seekers in Thailand

Thai immigration officers watch over a group of Rohingya in Bangkok on Jan. 3. The Rohingya illegally entered Thailand after being smuggled overland from Myanmar's Rakhine state and were bound for Malaysia. (Photo: Thailand Immigration Bureau/AFP)

The 19 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar were hiding out in a northern area of Bangkok when immigration authorities came knocking last week.

The asylum seekers, including several women and children, were all promptly detained. The incident showcases local authorities’ continued stance to deny Rohingya people asylum in Thailand.

In photos released to the media late last week, the 19 Rohingya asylum seekers, who appear dejected, are shown sitting on the floor of an immigration office in Bangkok as several officers stand beside them dressed in full-body plastic protective gear against Covid-19 infection.

The Rohingya migrants were smuggled overland into Thailand from conflict-torn Rakhine state in Myanmar late last year, according to Thai authorities. Seven of the 19 have tested positive for Covid-19 and are receiving treatment while the others are being held in quarantine.

Also detained was a Thai woman who had reportedly provided temporary shelter to the asylum seekers and whose husband had promised to find them some menial work.

The migrants were on their way to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation bordering southern Thailand that has been a favored destination for Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

“They didn’t know what kind of work they would find in Malaysia. They just wanted to get out of Rakhine state,” Kissana Phathanacharoen, a police colonel, told a foreign news agency.

Thai authorities have long denied the right of asylum to migrants fleeing persecution. Those denied a welcome are not only Rohingya Muslims but Christians from Pakistan as well.

Numerous Pakistani Christians have been stuck in Thailand for years as the country’s government does not recognize them as genuine refugees. Like all asylum seekers who are deemed to stay illegally in Thailand, these Christians are subject to summary arrest. Many have wound up in detention at overcrowded immigration holding centers, often indefinitely.

Prominent rights groups have for years been demanding that Thai authorities grant asylum to migrants such as stateless Rohingya people, but to little avail.

“The government’s inhumane policy of holding Rohingya arriving in Thailand in indefinite detention should be immediately repealed,” Human Rights Watch stressed in a statement last May after 12 Rohingya migrants had been arrested after crossing illegally into Thailand from Myanmar.

“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 of the rights group.

“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.”

Christian groups have been campaigning for the rights of their coreligionists from Pakistan who have been languishing in Thailand for years in the hope of relocating to a third country as refugees.

Thousands of Christians, including many Catholics, fled to Thailand several years ago with the aim of moving on to a third country. An estimated 1,500 may still be in Thailand, largely in the Bangkok area.

Lacking proper visas, most of these Christian asylum seekers have got stuck in Thailand where they continue to hide away in small low-rent apartments, subsisting on handouts from charitable Christian groups. They are in constant fear of arrest at the hands of immigration authorities who conduct routine crackdowns on buildings known to house illegal migrants.

“They will face persecution [back in Pakistan], some may be accused of blasphemy,” Wilson Chowdhry of the British Pakistani Christian Association, which helps refugees in Thailand, said recently.

“None of them have any money or property left as they sold it to get to Thailand.”

Although many Pakistani Christian families managed to leave Thailand for countries such as Canada where they received asylum with the help of local Christian organizations, the Covid-19 pandemic has temporarily dampened the hopes of many other asylum seekers still in Thailand.

“We have been waiting to leave for so long,” a Pakistani Catholic from Lahore told UCA News. “All we can do is hope and pray. We will go to any country that accepts us.” 

Meanwhile, complicating matters for other migrants from Myanmar is that in recent weeks Thai authorities have stepped up their campaign to stop all illegal entries into the country because of an ongoing second wave of the coronavirus outbreak.

Thai authorities have blamed migrant workers from Myanmar for triggering the outbreak by crossing the border illegally and eschewing disease control measures such as a two-week quarantine.

Several hundred migrants from Myanmar working at a crowded seafood market and in its environs in a seaside province near Bangkok have tested positive for Covid-19 in recent days. As many as 400,000 migrant workers are believed to live and work in the province known as “Little Myanmar.” 

“Because migrant workers live in crowded spaces, if one of them catches the virus, the disease will spread really fast,” said Dr. Yong Poovorawan, a prominent Thai virologist.

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