By Francis Wade
More than 90 Rohingya refugees have been found in “desperate” conditions by police in the Nicobar Islands, who say the group claims they were set adrift in boats by Thai authorities.
Twenty-five of the group of 91 refugees that hail from Burma are reportedly being treated at a hospital in Car Nicobar, the northernmost of the Indian island chain. They had arrived in boats earlier this week and, according to the BBC, were starving and suffering from serious dehydration.
Local police officer George Lalu told Deutsche Presse-Agentur that the group claimed they had crossed the Andaman Sea from Thailand in rickety boats after being expelled by Thai authorities. The journey had taken around one week.
“They said that after being detained for five days [in Thailand], they were set adrift in high seas on an engine-less wooden barge with hardly any rations and water,” he said.
A spokesperson for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told DVB that it was “gravely concerned” about the reports and was investigating the situation.
Thailand came under heavy criticism in 2009 after it was accused of towing hundreds of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, who had washed up in boats on its southern shores back out to sea, with little water or food. Many subsequently died.
Phil Robertson, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, said that the 2009 incident is “certainly a subtext that provides a great deal of concern about these [latest] allegations”.
The group of 91 claim they were attempting to reach Malaysia through Thailand when they were apprehended by Thai authorities, who then pushed them back out to sea. HRW has urged the Thailand government to clarify the recent allegations.
“Thailand has a number of strikes against them [with regards to alleged ‘pushbacks’] which is why people are taking these allegations so seriously,” Robertson added.
More than 150 Rohingya had arrived in southern Thailand’s resort of Phuket in January and were subsequently detained. A statement released by HRW on 2 February called on the Thai government to allow access for UNHCR officials, which is yet to be granted.
In January, Thailand announced it would be deporting 91 Rohingya – the same number that arrived in Nicobar – back to Burma, although it is not clear whether the two incidents are linked.
Mainly Buddhist Burma effectively denies citizenship and property rights to the Rohingya, leading to their abuse and exploitation. More than 200,000 are currently in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.