Bangkok (AsiaNews) - With the end of the monsoon season and improved sea conditions, the mass exodus of minority Rohingya Muslims could resume. Caritas Thailand volunteers have raised the alarm, and are preparing for a new wave of arrivals on the country's coasts.
Although Bangkok has repeatedly branded the refugees as "illegal immigrants ", leaving them in the open sea or repatriating them to Myanmar with the risk of renewed persecution, Catholic volunteers have instead launched a number of assistance and relief programmes.
Caritas Thailand secretary general Fr Sriparasert said that the Rohingya are a "burning issue" issue for the Thai government and for "all the nations of South East Asia."
Many of the refugees have sought asylum in Malaysia, a country with a large Muslim majority, where they hope to be treated better than in Bangladesh or Thailand.
To date, Fr Sriparasert told Catholic News Agency (CNA), "more than 2,000 Rohingya are being held in different centres" scattered throughout Thailand, in many cases deprived of basic rights guaranteed by the International Convention on Refugees. For example, women and children are sent to centres in the north, whilst the men in the fields of the south.
"They live in constant fear of attacks," the priest added, "of being a victim of human trafficking, violations and murders." In particular, women and children are being "traded" by unscrupulous traffickers, living in "degrading, inhuman and dangerous" conditions.
For this reason, Caritas Thailand, in collaboration with the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Services (COERR), has undertaken a series of initiatives that include health support, nutrition and social development in various diocesan centres.
"Caritas volunteers do a commendable job," Fr Sriparasert said, providing "psychological and medical support", working out of "reception centres to restore dignity to refugees. Their actions strengthen our faith, invite us to love the poor, build peace and facilitate inter-faith dialogue."
In the last two years, violence between Buddhists and Muslims have raised tensions between the different ethnic groups and religious denominations that define Myanmar, especially in the western state of Rakhine where clashes have broken out between native Arakanese and Rohingya Muslims.
The rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman sparked a spiral of terror, which caused hundreds of deaths and houses destroyed, and displaced at least 160,000 people, many of whom have sought refuge outside Myanmar, trying to escape attacks by the 969 Movement, a Buddhist extremist organisation.
According to United Nations estimates, there are at least 800,000 Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. For the Myanmar government they are illegal immigrants, which is why they are victims of abuse and persecution.