Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - On the surface, Thailand's decision to allow hundreds of Rohingya refugees to remain inside the country temporarily for six months as illegal immigrants seemed a commendable move. However, upon deeper scrutiny it showed the government's kneejerk manner of responding to the influx of "new boat people" from the Bay of Bengal and the overall recklessness among intragovernment agencies.
Worse still was the view held by the secretary-general of the National Security Council, LtGeneral Paradon Pattanathaboot, who continues to be in a state of denial, believing that the Rohingya are not victims of a regionwide human trafficking operation. The Thai authorities believe they are victims of human smugglers who dump them in Thailand before they go to Malaysia.
For the past few years, after the monsoon season ends, the Rohingya have taken to the sea inside small fishing trawlers arranged by smugglers. They have pay outrageous fees upfront to evade detection from camps and border guards. That is the easy part. The hard part is to survive the rough, often deadly, journey in high seas.
Most of the trawlers would sail along the coastal areas southward, trying to navigate hostile seas and avoid naval patrols from Bangladesh and Myanmar. If they are found, they would have to pay additional bribes. Before the current seafaring episode, the Rohingya used to be smuggled out through border areas in northern Myanmar through China, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
Under the previous government, the Thai naval patrols would push back the Rohingya once they were spotted closed to Thai territorial waters.
The standard practice adopted by Thailand, as well as other countries, is to provide food, water and fuel so that they could continue the journey to their destinations. When the Abhisit government did exactly that after a few weeks in power in January 2009, it came under international condemnation for violating human rights. In those days, the unwelcome visitors were detained as illegal immigrants and then quickly repatriated through border towns on the Kingdom's eastern flank, especially at Mae Sot.
However, most of them would return to Thailand shortly after, as they did not know where to go or desire to return home. That used to be the prima facie. Before the tragedy in Rakhine State last June, the inflow was small with a few hundred arrivals. Malaysia and Indonesia were their destinations.
In the second half of last year, the number went through the roof with more than 4,000 stranded Rohingya in Thailand. With the international community setting its eyes once again on their fate inside Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand, the Yingluck government was savvy enough to take the risk - sheltering them temporarily before a better solution is found. As illegal immigrants, they could stay up to six months.
Unfortunately, the government's action could send a wrong signal in two ways.
For the international community, Thailand is willing to shelter them temporarily, which is a new policy shift. For the trafficker, Thailand has become a new destination. New waves of arrivals could be expected in the near future. Human traffickers have connections inside Thailand, Malaysia, and even in Myanmar and often coordinate their operations.
Of late, bus loads of Rohingya have been seen travelling from Songkhla across Sadao's checkpoints to Malaysia. The Rohingya labourers are in big demand over there inside palm and rubber plantations as well as for construction work. Both countries are under the Tier 2 Watch List according to the 2012 Trafficking In Persons Report released by the US State Department.
However, this bad news is good news in southern Thailand, especially in Songkhla and Ranong. Fishing industry players including canned seafood factories have been suffering from a cheap labour shortage. They have been hiring the Rohingya for years at around 80 baht (US$2) per day against the new mandatory wage of 300 baht ($10) per day.
Last week, they demanded the government permit these illegal immigrants to fill up the gap in the work force. Strange but true, the government's wage hike is now being offset in the form of cheap Rohingya workers. Such a scheme will essentially lead to the exploitation of cheap labour and gross violations of human rights - a new form of slavery that has poisoned the country's reputation.
Once the soix-month period expires, the government has to shoulder the burden of sheltering them in case the international assistance, especially resettlement in third countries, is not forth coming.
Therefore, various intragovernment agencies must be prepared and use lessons learned from the various camps along the ThaiBurmese border, which have housed more than 400,000 displaced persons from Myanmar for nearly three decades.
To find a longterm solution, all concerned countries and stakeholders must get involved. After the 2009 influx and pushback campaign, a series of international conferences on migration, known as the Bali Process, were held to look at the big picture. The earlier hope of finding a durable solution with international support has gradually faded away, as third countries are not accepting more displaced persons from temporarily shelters spreading throughout Southeast Asian countries.
Malaysia now has around 55,000 Rohingya, while Thailand has an estimated 35,000. The number of Rohingya will certainly be swelling in coming months as traffickers have been alerted of the new Thai policy.
Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul said recently that Thailand would seek help from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the near future. Obviously, the Yingluck government is playing the OIC card, knowing full well it is scrutinising the atrocities in the south.
Thailand hopes to generate some good feedback. For years after its admission as an OIC observer, Thailand, especially under the Surayuth government (20062007), tried to counter and mitigate negative views from other OIC members regarding the three southern provinces and the treatment of the Rohingya, with a high degree of success. Thailand does not have anything to fear, especially the OIC, if the situation on the ground has improved as the government has claimed.
At the regional level, Asean has to treat this issue urgently. After all, Myanmar is now an active member, and will chair the grouping next year. After the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State last fall, Asean, led by Cambodia and Indonesia, urged Myanmar to agree to attend an Asean foreign ministerial meeting on the fate of the Rohingya. But Nay Pyi Taw rejected the proposal outright and severely criticised the proposed conference as an act of interference in the internal affairs of a member country.
At the 21st Asean Summit, Myanmar successfully pressed its colleagues to skip mentioning the Rohingya crisis as part of the regional issues. Instead, the violence was treated in the context of the protection of the rights of women, children and vulnerable groups in Rakhine state. Asean can also raise the issue with Bangladesh, which has expressed interest in becoming a dialogue partner of Asean.
Finally, as Thai-Myanmar relations have improved, coupled with the ongoing political and economic reforms, the two countries should sit down and devise common preventive measures to stem the flow of Rohingya. They could be properly registered as legal workers. These days, arrivals in southern cities do not face the same kind of bribes, of around US$2,000 or 60,000 baht. Their journey is arranged and paid for by traffickers. At the moment, Thailand has come under heavy pressure from the private sector to be more expedient over the time frame of registration of migrant workers from Myanmar, understanding the need for more cheap foreign workers.
With political will at the bilateral, regional and international levels, a lasting solution to the Rohingya problem is possible. However, like the Roma people in Europe, the fate of the Rohingya will be constantly in limbo - moving up and down, at the mercy of low and high sea tides, hurling them towards the shores of neighbouring countries.