Are the Boat People a Burden for Thailand?
November 29, 2014
Recently ten thousand Rohingya people, a stateless and plagued ethic minority, fleeing from Myanmar on illegal boats en route to Thailand did not reach their destination. At the same time about four thousand Bangladeshi and Rohingya people heading for Malaysia left Bangladesh across the Bay of Bengal, but only 460 people arrived, raising concerns over the whereabouts of the rest, which are still unknown.
A similar event took place in 2008 when many such boats went missing in the sea. Later, a few hundred Rohingya people were found starved and dehydrated in Indonesian and Indian territorial waters while others were lost at sea.
An Unwilling Home
Thailand, the country that so many immigrants hopefully aim to reach and start new lives, is not welcoming the boat people, who live under very harsh conditions in their own countries and venture the risk of losing their lives at the sea.
Thailand has so far been an unwilling home to some 13,000 asylum seekers and 82,000 registered refugees (as of June 2013).[i] It is one of 20 countries in the Asia Pacific region that shelter a great number of refugees. Thailand is the world’s third-largest exporter of seafood and the country is the second largest economy in the Southeast Asia according to ASEAN figures.[ii] Despite the country’s economic well-being, Thai authorities are pushing the people coming by boats back to the sea. Recently, the Thai military government announced that it will send 100,000 refugees living in camps for many years in Thailand back to the country they came from. Thailand claims to have the right to block the boats.
Thailand may be facing many challenges regarding the great flow of refugees. However, sending the immigrants back to the sea literally means signing their death sentences and being accomplice in murdering them. In the words of Colonel Banpot Phupian, a spokesman for the military’s Internal Security Operations, “Taking care of them is a burden for Thailand and we have to use a lot of money to look after them.”[iii] These words come from the dark and cold heart of Asia, a continent that has largely been under the influence of military traditions and communist China. Though an ally of the US, Thailand is one of the countries that is most influenced by China in terms of economy, military and politics and the words of Colonel Phupian indeed confirm this.
Another Police Colonel, Sanya Prakobphol, added, "If they come in then we must push them back ... once they have crossed the sea border into Myanmar then that's considered pushing them back. What they do next is their problem."[iv]
Endangered lives on one hand, profit on the other
While the Thai junta is either deporting refugees or leaving them at sea, the human-smuggling in the country is a growing business. It is so profitable a job that fisherman are converting their boats in order to carry as many boat people as possible.
Moreover, human-trafficking gangs hold thousands of boat people in jungle camps until their relatives pay a ransom to secure their release. Thailand is known as one of the worst human-trafficking centers of the world.
The recent military coup and the imposition of martial law has intensified concerns over lack of rule of law in the country. Yet while the Hollywood film ‘Hunger Games’ keeps being an inspiration to Thai youth with the three-finger salute becoming the anti-coup symbol in the country, Thailand’s martial law remains indefinitely intact.
In our world, where terror sweeps through countries leaving only destruction and death behind it, wronged people find no other way but to seek shelter in many countries. In democratic countries, all people have the right to escape persecution. Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Hence, boat people are not illegal immigrants and seeking asylum is most certainly permissible by international law. However, Thailand has not signed on to the Refugee Convention and has no domestic legislation regarding refugees. This gives the current military government space to act on its own, without any regard to international law or communities.
Exploited and Vulnerable
Right now over 120,000 Burmese refugees who have fled from persecution and ethnic violence are living in the ten camps allocated to them on the Thailand-Myanmar border. According to Thai law, undocumented refugees found outside of the camps are subject to arrest and deportation and refugees have no legal right to make an income; they are also at constant risk of arrest and detention. These vulnerable people often encounter harassment and discrimination from the Thai community. For them, human rights abuses are almost no different in Thailand than in Myanmar. They are even sold for a couple of dollars to work as slaves on fishing boats.[v]
Refugees throughout the world
On the other hand, with the onset of the Syrian Civil War, the number of Syrian refugees have surpassed the number of refugees of other nationalities and reached a climax [over three million as of Nov. 2014]. While in Central Africa some 485,000 people have been displaced within the country and over 421,000 people have fled so far.[vi] Hence, as the world’s attention and resources are focused mainly on Syria and Central Africa, something frequently mentioned in the media, much more needs to be done regarding the issue of refugees on the whole.
Perhaps the problem of refugees will never go away. But Thailand, a country with a comparatively better prosperity in the Asian Pacific region is the hope of many who live under persecution, and it certainly has to find a way of keeping these people within its borders until the international community or countries with higher GDP hear the voices of these people. This would be a very positive step in the eyes of the world since respecting universal human rights would represent good progress towards democracy and Thailand surely needs that. Otherwise, the dark and cold aspect of Asia will surround it leaving it with China as its only ally.
Besides, the world needs to pay more attention to the stories of refugees and assist the countries that host them. Camps are no place to live for families and children; they should only be used for temporary purposes. There are about 375,000 migrant children in Thailand and the country holds thousands of them in detention, causing them physical and emotional damage, according to Human Rights Watch report.
Nevertheless Thailand should not be immersed in the communist, artificial, loveless swirl of Asia. It should respect human rights and protect those in need. This is the prerequisite of being a decent human being.
The writer has authored more than 300 books translated in 73 languages on politics, religion and science.