02/03/2009, 00.00
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Rescue for 198 Rohingya refugees abandoned by Thailand in open sea

by Weena Kowitwanij
The refugees drifted for three weeks without water and food during which time 22 died. Thai authorities had denied them entry, leaving them on board a boat without an engine. A Thai committee blames the problem on human traffickers as refugees prefer death to going back to Myanmar.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – An Indonesian fishing boat found 198 Rohingya off the coast of Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. They were hungry, dehydrated, forced to stand for three weeks in a rickety boat.

According to an Indonesian naval officer, the refugees spent three weeks in the ocean after Thai authorities denied them entry into Thailand, leaving them in the open sea in a 12-metre boat that had no engine.

Survivors said that 22 other refugees died, unable to withstand hunger and fatigue. Almost half of those who made it is now in hospital suffering from the effects of malnutrition and dehydration.

This is the second time the Indonesian Navy rescues a group of desperate refugees in a month.

The Rohingya are a Muslim group living in Myanmar but are persecuted by that country’s government. So far they have found no place willing to take them in.

According to a Thai security committee the refugees are the victims of an international human trafficking ring that is using Thailand as a staging point to take the refugees to other countries.

Police sources confirmed that it found phone numbers among the personal effects of some refugees that were allegedly used to contact members of the Rohingya community based in Thailand, especially in the province of Ranong and Nakhon Ratchasima, near the border with Myanmar.

The international community is putting pressure on Bangkok, accused of “inhumanity” and being “cold-blooded” for its refusal to grant Rohingya refugee status.

Thai police recently arrested 126 other refugees for illegal entry. Nothing is known of their fate or whereabouts.

Narjif, Rohingya leader in Ranong province, said that he came legally to Thailand 30 years ago and that he is now earning a living “sorting garbage and collecting plastic bottles and metal cans for sale.”

In his adopted home he set up a school for Rohingya children. His community now consists of “68 people, aged 12 to 40, who legally live here as foreign labourers working in construction in Ranong province.”

“Our residence permits will expire in October,” Narjif said, “but we want to stay. Going back makes no sense because the [Burmese] military make us work without paying us.”

He said that the international focus on the plight of Rohingya refugees is a good thing, because “we can now see the real situation of our people. The international community should help us solve the problem at its root cause.”

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