Bangkok (AsiaNews) - "I am here with a group of ten friends and we are trying to reach Malaysia hoping to find a job and earn money for our families," Abdul Malee, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, told AsiaNews. Like scores of others, he is in Thailand, held at a reception centre in Songkhla province.
The ten-member group is part of larger group of about a thousand refugees, all minority Muslims from the western Myanmar state of Rakhine, who have been the victims of persecution and violence and who have been denied their citizenship and deprived of basic human rights. Their final goal is Malaysia or Indonesia, predominantly Sunni Muslim nations in southeast Asia.
In a statement, General Paradorn Patanatabutra, secretary general of the Thai Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), said that the thousand or so Rohingya refugees were detained a few days ago (11 and 12 January) in Sadao District, in the southern province Songkhla. The large group was discovered as it was getting ready to leave for its final destination.
Among the people held, there are 160 women and children on their way to rejoin their husbands and fathers working in Malaysia or Indonesia.
To end any speculation about how they would be treated, the General Paradorn said that the refugees' basic human rights would be respected.
Meanwhile, investigators stated that four groups are involved in human trafficking in Sadao District, especially of Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar with each refugee worth about 60,000 baht (US$ 2,000).
Eight people have been arrested for involvement in trafficking, four Burmese, two Rohingya and two, said Thai nationals Police Colonel Krisada Pleethanyawong.
For its part, Human Rights Watch (HRW) asked Thai authorities to let it monitor the illegal migrants' conditions to determine their status and see what kind of assistance they need.
Until last year, some 800,000 Rohingya lived in Myanmar, but scores have fled the country despite the risks and hardships associated with emigration.
"We get a meal a day," said Aluyee Tula, a Rohingya refugee who was arrested by Thai authorities on 10 January and is still held at the reception centre.
"Out of the thousand or so Rohingya arrested at least 500 have been able to escape," he explained. "We want to go to a third country to find a job. If we go back to Myanmar, they'll throw us in jail for at least ten years."
In June 2012, a district court in Kyaukphyu, Rakhine State sentenced three Muslims to death for the rape and murder in late May of Thida Htwe, a local young Arakanese Buddhist woman. This sparked to a wave of sectarian violence between Muslims and Buddhists.
In the following days, an angry mob attacked Muslims blaming them for the rape and murder. Although innocent, ten Muslims were killed. This set off a cycle of violence that left 29 more people dead, 16 Muslims and 13 Buddhists.
According to official sources, at least 2,600 homes were torched and thousands of Rohingya fled abroad in the following months.