Thailand will investigate reports that the Thai navy abandoned migrants on a barge in the ocean where hundreds of them may have drowned, the government said yesterday.
The Thai foreign ministry also said it would reassess the overall situation of illegal immigration in light of the incident and would attempt to work with neighboring countries to better address the problem.
“Thai officials are currently investigating and verifying all the facts and surrounding circumstances,” the ministry said in a statement, referring to the incident late last month when more than 100 Myanmar and Bangladeshi workers were rescued by Indian authorities from a barge adrift near the Andaman Islands.
“In accordance with our immigration laws, we are committed to maintaining our traditional adherence to humanitarian principles and the protection of human rights,” the ministry said.
It is the first reported incident of the Thai navy forcing a boat out to sea rather than detaining the migrants as was policy in the past.
The UN refugee agency demanded an explanation from Thailand on Friday for the incident, which the Thai navy and immigration officials have denied for weeks.
The migrants — Myanmar refugees in Bangladesh known as Rohingyas and Bangladeshi nationals — were attempting to land their boats in Thailand and proceed by land to neighboring Malaysia where they planned to get work.
Indian authorities say 300 workers are still missing and presumed dead based on interviews with survivors.
Washington-based Refugees International and Bangkok-based advocacy group Arakan Project say that several other boats containing as many as 1,000 migrants have been intercepted since last month by the Thai navy and forced back out to sea.
A boat containing 193 people reportedly ended up on Sabang island off the Indonesian province of Aceh where they are being held on a naval base, according to reports earlier this week in the Jakarta Post and the New Delhi-based Mizzima newspaper. It was not possible to independently verify the account.
Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, said she interviewed at least two survivors, who were on the boat that ended up near India’s Andaman Islands.
The survivors were detained on a remote Thai island early last month, where they were beaten, tied up and given little food, Lewa said, recounting the survivor’s accounts. They were then intimidated into boarding a barge, she said.
“They tied the legs of some of them and threw four overboard,” she said.
Survivors said Thai sailors left them with only two barrels of water and four bags of rice, Lewa said.
Thousands of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas leave Bangladesh aboard rickety boats each year in hope of finding work in neighboring countries.
In the last three years, one of the most popular migration routes has been by boat to Thailand and then overland to Malaysia, Lewa said.