BANGKOK — The Thai government might seek help from Burma in identifying the nationality of 857 people from the beleaguered Rohingya minority who are accused of entering Thailand illegally, authorities said on Tuesday.
The refugees, who arrived in three groups, were recently rescued by Thai security forces during raids in the southern border province of Songkhla. They included 667 men, 30 women and 160 children.
The asylum seekers will be repatriated to Burma if they are identified as its citizens, Foreign Ministry Permanent-Secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow told reporters on Tuesday. He said the government would hold discussions with the United Nations’ refugee agency before proceeding with those whose nationality is unverifiable.
Sectarian violence in Burma involving the Rohingya has left hundreds dead and many more homeless in recent months.
Last week, more than 300 Rohingya people were found living in poor conditions in crowded makeshift shelters on a rubber plantation in Songkhla’s Sadao District.
Police investigating whether the Rohingya were victims of human trafficking arrested eight suspects—six from Burma, including two Rohingya, and two Thais—who were believed to be traffickers last Thursday.
Authorities were also considering pressing charges of illegal entry against the refugees.
The United Nations estimates the Rohingya population in Burma at 800,000, but the government does not recognize them as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, and most are denied citizenship.
Rohingya speak a Bengali dialect and resemble Muslim Bangladeshis, with darker skin than most people in Burma. They are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and are heavily discriminated against, but Bangladesh also refuses to accept them as citizens.
Activists have called for Thailand not to deport the Rohingya to Burma because of the widespread discrimination.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told reporters on Tuesday that the government will discuss possible deportation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.
“In the meantime, Thailand has the duty to take care of them. We are not going to send them anywhere yet because we have to look into the cause and talk to the country who will accept them and the country of their origin,” she said.
Thai officials said the refugee men have been held at police facilities across the province, while women and children have been under the care of the Social Development and Human Security Ministry. Sihasak, the Foreign Ministry official, said the deportation process was unlikely to start before the police investigation is completed.