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UNHCR Calls For Access To Rohingya Boat People

The U.N. refugee agency says it has asked the Thai government for access to boat people from Burma who are in custody in southern Thailand to see if they are in need of international protection. The UNHCR has expressed its concern to the government about allegations that a number of Rohingya boat people were intercepted in Thai waters last week, towed out to sea and left to die.

The U.N. refugee agency says reliable sources report a group of 80 Rohingya boat people are being held on Koh Sai Daing island off the Thai coast in the Andaman Sea. It says another 46 Rohingya who were intercepted on a boat last Friday were handed over to the Thai military authorities.

UNHCR Spokesman Ron Redmond, says these people have disappeared and the UNHCR is trying to determine their whereabouts. He calls reports about the treatment of Rohingya boat people alarming.

"The reports allege that hundreds of people have died at sea,"" said Redmond. "We are still awaiting a response from the Thai government to a request that we sent last week for further information on this issue. Right now, obviously, we are concerned about those who reportedly have been taken ashore and UNHCR would like to have access to these people as soon as possible."

The Rohingya are stateless Muslims from northern Rakhine state of western Burma. There are 28,000 Rohingya recognized refugees in two UNHCR camps in Bangladesh and an estimated 200,000 unregistered Rohingya are living outside the camps there.

Redmond says for the past several years many of these desperate people have risked their lives in small boats to sail from Bangladesh or Burma, They often turn up in Thailand, Malaysia or as far away as Indonesia.

"Given the new Thai government's commitment to human rights, we are eager to discuss with the Foreign Minister ways that this crisis can be defused quickly in line with international humanitarian standards," said Redmond.

"We have stressed that the Thai government should take all measures to make sure the lives of the Rohingya boat people are not put at risk. We also welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement in the Thai media today [Tuesday] that he has ordered the defense minister to investigate accusations of maltreatment of the Rohingya boat people," he added.

The UNHCR notes the plight of the Rohingya is a regional problem. Therefore, it says it wants to discuss with the Thai government ways in which all concerned countries can address the root causes that impel the Rohingya to put their lives at risk on such perilous journeys. It calls this a matter of some urgency.