PHUKET – Thai authorities say that they have rescued nearly 700 people from Myanmar’s beleaguered Rohingya minority who were being held by alleged human traffickers in the country’s south.
Police Major-Colonel Thanusin Duangkaewngam said police and government officials raided a warehouse in Sadao district in Songkhla province on Friday and rescued 307 Rohingya boat people.
The migrants told police that they had voluntarily come to Thailand as part of a journey to a third country.
Police arrested eight suspects believed to be traffickers.
The authorities also raided makeshift shelters in the same district on Thursday and discovered 397 Rohingya, including 11 women and 12 children.
Officials say the migrants will be repatriated to Myanmar. The migrants had languished in the warehouses for three months, waiting to be trafficked to a “third country”, local police said.
“They are now waiting for deportation which will be done by Thailand’s immigration police,” Lieutenant Colonel Katika Jitbanjong of Padang Besar local police told the AFP news agency.
“They told officials that they had volunteered to come [to Thailand],” he said, adding police were seeking an arrest warrant for the Thai landowner on charges of human trafficking and sheltering illegal migrants.
Human rights activists have called for the Thai government not to deport the Rohingya to Myanmar, where they face widespread discrimination.
Thailand has refused to offer refugee status to the Rohingya, choosing instead to either deport those found to have illegally entered the country, or sending them to Malaysia, which offers sanctuary to the minority.
“Thailand is pursuing a beggar-thy neighbour approach,” according to Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch Asia.
“Thailand is using the good policy of its neighbour [Malaysia] to escape its own international obligation to protect refugees and it is shameful.”
The UN refugee agency has called on Myanmar’s neighbours to open their borders to people fleeing a wave of communal violence in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine.
Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have left at least 180 people dead in Rakhine since June, and displaced more than 110,000 others, mostly Rohingya.
Myanmar views the roughly 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship.
Although the tensions have eased since a new outbreak of killings in October, concerns have grown about the fate of asylum-seekers setting sail in overcrowded boats.
Last week, Thailand deported 73 Rohingya boat people back to Myanmar, after they landed on the southern island of Phuket.