Absorbing Rohingya becomes a regional challenge
The Myanmar army crackdown in Rakhine state has overwhelmed the border area of Bangladesh and also eliminated the possibility of sending Rohingya migrants in Thailand back to Myanmar. As a result, Thailand must consider other solutions such as new shelter arrangements or reuniting families in Muslim-majority Malaysia, suggests the Migrant Working Group (MWG).
"No pushback should be a policy for all destination countries including Thailand. Authorities should consider the proper legal status of these people which could be categorised as 'mixed migration' combining refugee, migrant and asylum seeker status. But we can only do that when we have a systematic database of these people," said Adisorn Kerdmongkol, the MWG coordinator.
Mixed migration is relatively a new term; it reflects an element of involuntary action, such as people moving due to an impetus beyond their control.
About 50,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi people are believed to have arrived on the coasts of neighbouring countries in the past year. Thailand still has 300 Rohingya boat people from previous years languishing in civilian and police detention facilities.
Most of the women and children and male minors are staying at shelters of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security in Phangnga, Ranong, Surat Thani and Songkhla provinces. Adult males are held at immigration temporary detention rooms in Ranong, Phangnga and Sadao (Songkhla).
Details on the status and nationalities of these people have not been shared with the public and it is not known how many were Bangladeshi and how many were deported back to their country of origin, said Mr Adisorn.
"This has caused some Bangladeshis to be detained alongside Rohingya, while the issue of missing or enforced disappearance can't be clarified as we don't have track records of these people," he said.
Echoing many other NGOs' concerns about congestion, harsh conditions and unhygienic detention facilities, Mr Adisorn stressed that the government should consider setting up temporary shelters inside communities that were not hostile to the Rohingya, a Muslim minority facing severe persecution in Myanmar.
"Initially, security officials were afraid of the pool factor from setting up a separate holding centre, but lately they fear the Rohingya could be lured into insurgency -- which is actually unlikely," said Mr Adisorn.
While sending the Rohingya back to Myanmar is no longer practical, chances for relocation to third countries are also poor, he said.
"A few have been repatriated to the US. But that's not the most-wanted option for the Rohingya. They just want to reunite with their husbands or sons in Malaysia or Indonesia. Could the government strike a deal with the neighbouring countries that housed the Rohingya to allow them to live together?" asked Mr Adisorn.
Chutima Sidasathien, a PhD student and former Phuketwan journalist who has researched the Rohingya, said the stateless people have been left to fend for themselves.
"Around 6,000 have entered Thailand in the past decade -- mostly in the hands of human traffickers. The majority of them have already moved on to their destination choice -- Malaysia," said Ms Chutima.
Those who didn't have registered as Moken, or sea gypsies, to gain official status in Thailand, while a few have married local people and raised families, she noted.
"This humanitarian issue has been created in Myanmar but Thailand has been unwilling to demand that Nay Pyi Daw quickly resolve the problem that has spilled over to all neighbouring countries," said Ms Chutima, adding that prosecution and trials of trafficking syndicates have also become problematic.
"Trafficking is a lucrative business in Thailand. While people on the coasts of Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand are involved in the illegal migration business, Bangladeshi authorities may be less corrupt than others. They were able to prevent greedy traffickers from Thailand kidnapping Bangladeshis during 2014 and 2015 and loading them onto old or unlicensed fishing boats," she said.
Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project told a forum on mixed migration in Bangladesh that the fate of the Rohingya rested in the hands of corrupt officials in coastal countries and trafficking networks in destination countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, as border closures and crackdowns were rife.
"The region doesn't have a mechanism to track and document missing people. We have yet to know who the people were in the mass graves uncovered a year ago along the Thai-Malaysian border," said Ms Lewa.
Little is known as well about the larger number who went ashore and to which country, she added.
Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, assistant director of the Bar Council of Malaysia, said the Rohingya represented the largest "mixed migration" in the country with 35,000 people -- 60% migrants and 40% asylum seekers.
She said those who were penalised for illegal entry through whipping sometimes stayed on for 2-8 months before being deported, and many were released back to society.
Those who identified themselves as Rohingya would be verified through UNHCR process, but it took two years to get an identity card, she said.
Illegal immigrants from Myanmar were facilitated in their return by the Myanmar embassy and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Some 11,000 people have already been through the process, except the Rohingya, she said.
"Rohingya have been exploited and extorted by not only police but drug dealers as they know these people stay illegally in the country -- they were forced to sell drugs too," said Ms Sumitha.
Now the Malaysian government, with support from the IOM, has started a pilot project to allow 300 Rohingya to work on plantations, said the lawyer.
Unemployment was a big problem for Bangladesh, leading to economic migration, said Shakirul Islam, director of the Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a Banglasesh-based migrant assistance group.
"Since June 2014, 400 families have lodged complaints that their family members went missing," he said. "Traffickers induce the Bangladeshis to take part in the 'free' journey -- getting on board and paying the money at their destinations. But along the route, they got extorted, or detained, or died."
The Bangladeshi government made a deal in February this year with Malaysia to receive 1.5 million migrants, but only 700,000 jobs are available, he said.