Ismail and Mohamed were among the 393 Rohingya that Thai police say were arrested that day in Padang Besar. So was Ismail’s friend Ediris, 22. The three young men all hailed from Buthedaung, a poor township in northern Rakhine State. Their story reveals how Thailand, a rapidly developing country in the heart of Southeast Asia, shifted from cracking down on human trafficking camps to facilitating them.
After their arrest, Ediris and Ismail were brought to an immigration detention center (IDC) in Sadao, where they joined another 300 Rohingya rounded up from a nearby smuggler’s house. The two-story IDC, designed for a few dozen inmates, was overflowing. Women and children were moved to sheltered housing, while some men were sent to other IDCs across Thailand.
With about 1,700 Rohingya locked up nationwide, the Thai government set a July deadline to deport them all and opened talks with Myanmar on how to do it. The talks went nowhere, because the Myanmar government refused to take responsibility for what it regards as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Men and teenage boys languished for months in cramped, cage-like cells, often with barely enough room to sit or stand, much less walk. In June, journalists visited an IDC in Phang Nga, near the tourist mecca of Phuket. There were 269 men and boys crammed into a space built for no more than 100. It reeked of urine and sweat. Some detainees used crutches because their muscles had atrophied.
A doctor who inspected Sadao’s IDC in July said he found five emaciated Rohingya clinging to life. Two died on their way to hospital, said the doctor, Anatachai Thaipratan, an adviser of the Thai Islamic Medical Association.
As the plight of Rohingya detainees made world headlines, pressure mounted on Thailand. However, Myanmar would not take them, nor would Malaysia. With thousands more arriving, the UN’s refugee agency issued an urgent appeal for alternative housing. The government proposed building a “mega camp” in Nakhon Sri Thammarat, another province in southern Thailand. It was rejected after an outcry from local people.
In early August, 270 Rohingya rioted at the IDC in Phang Nga. Men tore off doors separating cells, demanding to be let outside to pray at the close of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Over the last three weeks of August, more than 300 Rohingya fled from five detention centers.
By this time, Mohamed, the 21-year-old refugee, could no longer walk, let alone escape. His leg muscles had wasted away from months in detention in a cell shared by 95 Rohingya men. Ismail and Ediris were shuttled between various IDCs, ending up in Nong Khai, a city on Thailand’s northern border with Laos. Thailand saw its options rapidly dwindling, a senior government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. It could not protest to Myanmar’s government to improve the lives of Rohingya and stem the exodus, the official said. That could ruffle diplomatic feathers and even jeopardize the access of Thai companies hoping to invest in Myanmar, one of the world’s hottest frontier markets.
Nor could Thailand arrest, prosecute and jail the Rohingya for breaking immigration laws — there were simply too many of them.