For the past month, the world has watched in horror as Myanmar’s army has carried out a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against members of the Rohingya minority in the west of the country. Almost 500,000 women, men and children have already crossed the border into Bangladesh, leaving behind dead family members, burned villages and a shattered homeland.
While the international community has rightly focused on the horrors precipitating the mass exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar, Myanmar’s neighbors remain woefully unprepared to handle the spillover effects of the crisis.
While welcoming, Bangladesh is understandably straining to manage the sudden influx of hungry and desperate individuals. In mainland Southeast Asia, only Cambodia — hardly a model in terms of respect for human rights — is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The region hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees, but they are denied access to asylum protections, routinely arrested and detained, and pushed to the margins of society.
Historically, Thailand has carried the burden of human rights crises in Myanmar. Since the mid-1980s, refugee camps along Thailand’s western border have sheltered villagers fleeing Myanmar’s brutal counter-insurgency operations against ethnic armed groups. Today, more than 100,000 refugees remain in these camps as Myanmar’s peace process falters and the government fails to adequately prepare for their repatriation. Many political exiles from Myanmar have also sought protection in Thailand, particularly after crackdowns on the pro-democracy movement in 1988 and 2007.
However, in recent years, Thailand’s most visible nexus to the grave human rights situation in Myanmar has been the situation of the Rohingya. Thailand has long been a hub for human trafficking networks transporting Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants to Malaysia and other destination countries. In 2015, the “discovery” of trafficking camps and mass graves in southern Thailand — Thai officials knew of the existence of the camps for years and were complicit in the operations of traffickers — precipitated a crackdown by Thai and Malaysian authorities. As a result, traffickers abandoned boats of refugees and migrants at sea, often without adequate water, food or fuel.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place, a report published this week by Amnesty International, describes how Thailand’s military government responded to the 2015 boat crisis by enforcing a “push-back” policy first implemented by prior Thai administrations. The Thai navy towed boats filled with hungry and malnourished refugees into international waters, driving them on towards Malaysia or Indonesia. Amnesty International researchers spoke with refugees who described the hopelessness they felt after being turned back to sea despite their desperate circumstances. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that at least 370 individuals lost their lives at sea during the crisis. Amnesty International fears that the number was much higher.
As “sailing season” nears once more, it is likely that some of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya sheltering in squalid, makeshift camps in Bangladesh will attempt the potentially deadly journeys across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. Despite widespread condemnation of its actions in 2015, the Thai authorities have sent mixed messages regarding their current policy toward the Rohingya. A month ago, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha stated that authorities were “preparing to receive” Rohingya fleeing Myanmar. More recently, a Thai military officer indicated that the Thai navy would once again push back boats carrying Rohingya refugees should they arrive in Thai waters.
While the Myanmar exodus is currently dominating headlines, it is important to remember that the Rohingya are not the only individuals in need of international protection whom Thailand has treated badly.
As documented in our report, over the past three years the Thai government has, on several occasions, forcibly returned refugees and asylum-seekers to countries based on the request of foreign governments. In 2015, Thailand handed a group of 109 ethnic Uyghur asylum-seekers over to Chinese authorities in Bangkok. They were subsequently placed on a chartered flight with black hoods over their heads surrounded by Chinese security officers. Their current status and condition in China is unknown. A few months later, Thailand forcibly returned two Chinese political activists, despite the fact that both had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR and approved for resettlement in Canada.
Most recently, in May of this year, Thailand caved in to the demands of the Turkish government by cooperating in the extradition of a Turkish national with alleged links to exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen. He was arrested as soon as he landed in Istanbul.
Underlying these grave human rights violations is a gaping hole in Thailand’s refugee laws and policies. Thai law does not give refugees and asylum-seekers legal status, nor does it establish any formal measures to protect those fleeing persecution and human rights violations in another country. Therefore, refugees, like all other irregular migrants are considered “illegal” and are subject to arrest, detention and deportation. While Thailand has made welcome commitments to strengthening protections for refugees, to date these remain little more than unfulfilled promises.
Now home to the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis, Southeast Asia needs leadership and a positive model for the treatment of refugees more than ever before. Thailand, with its long history of hosting those fleeing persecution, must step up to the mark.
Audrey Gaughran is Amnesty International’s Director of Global Issues.