BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s government said on Saturday it is investigating reports that its security forces pushed hundreds of detained refugees back out to sea last month with little food and water, drawing condemnation from human rights groups.
Citing accounts from survivors, rights activists say groups of mainly Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar were held on a remote island off southern Thailand after entering Thai waters, and then forced back on boats and set adrift.
“Thai officials are currently investigating and verifying all the facts and surrounding circumstances,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.
Rights activists say one of the boats pushed back out to sea later capsized, killing at least four refugees and leaving another 300 missing.
“It’s an outrageous situation. Thailand must stop putting them back in the middle of the sea,” Chris Lewa, a human rights activist who interviewed some of the survivors, told the Irrawaddy, a Burmese exile-run magazine based in Thailand.
Survivors told her they were forced at gunpoint to get into one boat and were given four bags of rice and two tanks of water.
Vice Admiral Narong Thedbisal, who commands naval forces in the area, has denied his men mistreated refugees after a Hong Kong newspaper last week reported tourist accounts of soldiers whipping migrants on a beach in southern Thailand.
He said the 200 Rohingya men were caught in Thai waters last month, towed ashore and searched for weapons. They were given food and handed over to immigration authorities, he said.
“The navy does everything according to law in dealing with illegal immigrants,” he told Reuters.
The United Nations refugee agency said it was concerned about the reports and urged the government to investigate.
“We request the Thai government take all measures necessary to ensure that the lives of Rohingya are not at risk and they are treated in accordance with humanitarian standards,” Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said.
Human rights groups say the Muslim Rohingya are escaping oppression and economic hardship in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar, where the military has ruled for more than four decades.
Myanmar’s neighbour Bangladesh is home to more than 20,000 Rohingya refugees living in two official camps since 1992 after fleeing persecution in their home country.
“The Rohingya will continue to make the journey because they have no hope for a better life in Burma. Pushing them back out to sea is not an effective deterrent — it just jeopardizes lives,” the advocacy group Refugees International said in a statement.