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Thailand Allows UN Refugee Agency to Meet Burmese Boat People

Thai authorities have for the first time allowed the U.N. refugee agency to meet with Burmese boat people Thailand has been holding since they were picked up trying to enter the country. The U.N. agency has not yet determined if they qualify as refugees.

Representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees were able to meet with 12 of the 78 detained boat people.

The boat people are Rohingya, a Burmese ethnic minority that has been fleeing persecution in Burma.

UNHCR Asia spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey says after years of having its requests denied by Thai authorities, this is the first time they have granted the U.N. access to any Rohingya in custody.

"We have in principle agreement that we can get access to the full group," she said. "We are now getting good cooperation from the Thai authorities and we are very grateful for that. We think it is a big step forward that we have gotten access to this group of twelve."

Thai authorities ignored UNHCR requests last week to see another group of 126 Rohingya who were detained by the Thai military and then later deported.

McKinsey says the 12 they were allowed to see were all teenagers and appeared to be in "fairly good condition".

On Wednesday a Thai court convicted the 66 others of illegally entering the country and sentenced them to five days in jail.

The Thai navy took the Rohingya into custody after their boat was found floating off the southern coast with a broken motor. They were later turned over to immigration authorities. Thai media reports says Burmese soldiers had beaten the group before they reached Thailand.

McKinsey would not say if the teenagers appeared to have been beaten or if they were asking for asylum, but said they were very eager to talk to the U.N. representatives.

"We cannot, right now, get into the content of what we discussed with them," she said. "We have agreed to discuss our findings with the Thai government before we discuss them with journalists."

Thailand's foreign ministry has indicated it will deport the Rohingya still in custody regardless of any asylum requests. Thailand considers the Rohingya economic migrants who are a threat to social stability and keeping jobs for Thais.

The Rohingya drew world attention earlier this month after hundreds of them washed up in Indonesia, India, and Thailand, some of them with stories of abuse by the Thai military.

The Thai government has denied any abuse, but at the same time said it will investigate.