Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - Relief operations by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help Rohingya migrants are set to begin in earnest now that Thai authorities have given the go-ahead, agency spokesperson Vivian Tan said yesterday.
The announcement came as officials detained another 60 Rohingyas yesterday. The migrants were found on a boat off Ranong's Muang district that was attempting to dock. The new arrivals bring to 917 the number of Rohingyas who have entered Thailand illegally from Myanmar in recent weeks.
While the government works out operational measures, the UNHCR will start by interviewing the 857 Myanmar-based exiles and take other measures to verify details provided by them. In the meantime, the UNHCR will decide what steps to take and in which areas help is most needed, before finally providing full-scale assistance, Tan said.
Asked about the possibility of setting up a camp to temporarily hold the 857 Rohingyas on Thai soil, Tan said the UNHCR would not go beyond frameworks to be established by the government.
Former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan commented that Thailand should not rush in its handling of the issue by being overly focused on immediate repatriation. He warned that this would affect the Kingdom's positive image in the international community as a country with a history of extending hospitality to refugees fleeing violence. Resolving the problems facing Myanmar's 800,000 Rohingyas would ultimately have to involve the Myanmar authorities.
Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, who has responsibility for internal security issues, said the Foreign Ministry had been assigned to interview the Rohingyas, and that it was important for Thailand to handle the issue carefully, on humanitarian and immigration grounds.
Chalerm said he had no concerns that the Muslim Rohingyas would get involved with the insurgency in the deep South. "What is problematic is their [possible] future illegal entry into Thailand in the long term. This is a very delicate matter and Thailand needs to protect its interests while not violating human rights," he said.
Asked about the possibility of setting up a camp to accommodate the newly arrived immigrants, Chalerm said he would need to discuss the matter with the Interior and Foreign ministries, along with security officials, before making a decision.
"We would need to find third countries who are ready to accommodate [the Rohingya], possibly Muslim countries, as they have abundant accommodation and funding," he said.
Four of the Rohingya exiles yesterday staged a protest outside the Foreign Ministry compound asking Thailand not to repatriate the group. They plan to submit their request to the British, US, Australian and Malaysian embassies.
Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul had received the request, and was expected to consider it at a ministry meeting next week.
The four also called on Thai authorities to search for a number of their fellow migrants who had gone missing during their journey to Thailand, which took them through jungles and across the sea.
The Sheikhul Islam Office, the Central Islamic Council of Thailand and the provincial Islamic councils in the five deep South provinces issued an open letter calling for sympathy from Thai people and assigning the council in Songkhla to act as centre of assistance. Aid would be distributed from there to all locations where the 857 currently reside.
The statement called on Thai authorities not to repatriate the Rohingya to Myanmar, while welcoming donations to an account named Assistance Fund for Rohingyas, account number 934-1-48557-6, at the Islamic Bank of Thailand's Hat Yai branch.