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Thailand may set up camps for Rohingya migrants

Rohingya migrants passing food supplies dropped by a Thai army helicopter to others aboard a boat off the southern island of Koh Lipe yesterday. The boat was found drifting in Thai waters, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
By Nirmal Ghosh
May 15, 2015

It is looking at using 2 unpopulated islands as temporary detention sites

Thailand may set up temporary camps for boat people, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told journalists yesterday, even as a decrepit boat with some 300 desperate Rohingya aboard was found drifting off Koh Lipe island, west of Satun province.

The rust-encrusted boat, located by the Thai Navy from information from fishing boats and occasional mobile phone calls from the people on board, had been abandoned by the crew, who had left it with a disabled engine about a week ago. It bore a banner with the English words "We are Myanmar Rohingya" painted on it.

With food and water running out, 10 people aboard the vessel had died and their bodies had been thrown overboard, the Rohingya people on board said. Some had resorted to drinking their own urine. Thai fishermen were giving them some food, reporters at the scene said.

Agence France-Presse news agency reported one of the Rohingya telling journalists: "We have been at sea for two months. We want to go to Malaysia but we have not reached there yet."

The boat was packed with the Rohingya, many of them women and children, and looking visibly weak. Some cried and pleaded for food and water as reporters approached in a speedboat.

Late yesterday, a Thai Navy helicopter dropped food. Mr Jeff Labovitz, chief of mission in Thailand of the International Organisation for Migration, said the navy was willing to take the Rohingya off the boat but they had thus far refused, saying they wanted to go to Malaysia.

The Prime Minister has ordered an evaluation of two unpopulated islands off the west coast province of Ranong, which may be used to temporarily detain Rohingya migrants, reported The Nation daily, quoting sources.

In Bangkok, Premier Prayut told journalists that the migrants would be only temporarily detained. Thailand's policy was to ensure that illegal migrants were safely repatriated, he said.

Thailand was already holding some 100,000 Rohingya migrants, said the Premier who, with Thailand under pressure from the international community, has made tackling human trafficking a priority. But he insisted that other countries needed to help. "Everyone tries to make a transit point such as us take responsibility. Is this fair?" he said.

Thailand has called a 15-country senior officials' meeting for May 29, to find a way to deal with the flood of migrants. But activists fear any solutions may come too late to save the lives of hundreds, and possibly thousands, of the boat people as country after country turns them away.

More boats are thought to be in the area as thousands of Rohingya mostly from Myanmar, but with some Bangladeshis also among them, make their way to Malaysia - which had until this week been accommodating, but has now started pushing them back.

A crackdown on the human trafficking gangs that have been preying on the Rohingya when they arrive in Thailand en route to Malaysia has caused smugglers to abandon boats, leaving passengers stranded at sea, say activists tracking the seasonal migration which this year has reached unprecedented numbers.

Meanwhile, Thai police have identified Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, a former senior Satun province official, as a kingpin of the human trafficking racket. It was uncovered when the authorities found dozens of graves containing corpses and skeletons of migrants in jungle camps near the Malaysian border.

The latest find, on Tuesday, was a big camp with watchtowers and toilets that could have housed up to 1,000 people near the Malaysian border, less than 5km from a camp site where 26 bodies had been recovered earlier this month.

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