Rights groups called on the Thai government Thursday to scrap its plan to deport 73 refugees from Myanmar's Rohingya minority found adrift off a Thai resort island.
A boat carrying the asylum seekers was found adrift in the Andaman Sea on New Year's Day as they were headed to Malaysia, Thailand's southern neighbor. Thai officials supplied medicine, food, water and fuel for them to carry on their journey without landing in Thailand, as the country's policy is to not accept boat people but to aid them in reaching a third country.
"The plan was averted after the refugees were weak and too exhausted. They also feared of mishaps at sea," Phuket provincial governor Maitri Inthusut said.
The refugees left Phuket by bus on Wednesday and were on their way to a Thai-Myanmar border checkpoint in Ranong province, 460 kilometers (290 miles) southwest of Bangkok, Police Lt. Col. Chidchanok Sakornyen said Thursday.
He said there were 12 children among them, all of whom will be sent back to Myanmar by land on transport provided by Thai immigration police.
New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch called on the Thai government to immediately halt its deportation plan and to allow the U.N. refugee agency to handle the case.
"The Thai government should scrap its inhumane policy of summarily deporting Rohingya, who have been brutally persecuted in Burma, and honor their right to seek asylum," the group's Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement Thursday.
Sectarian violence in Myanmar, also known as Burma, involving the Rohingya has left hundreds dead and many more homeless in recent months.
The U.N. estimates the Rohingya population in Myanmar 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 Myanmar. They are widely regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and heavily discriminated against. But Bangladesh also refuses to accept them as citizens.
The exodus of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, where many are also confined to refugee camps, has become seasonal, peaking in December and January. Their fate became an international issue in 2008-2009, when predominantly Buddhist Thailand towed broken-down boats crammed with refugees back to sea, where they were cast adrift. Hundreds are believed to have died when the boats later sank.
The latest batch of asylum seekers told officials they had been at sea for 13 days and were headed for Malaysia. Malaysia is seen as a welcoming destination because its own Muslim population is dominant, though it too considers the Rohingya undesirable.
On Sunday, about 450 asylum seekers from Myanmar landed in Malaysia after a similar boat journey that left one dead, a man who tried to swim to shore.
It was one of the largest groups of Rohingya this past year to reach Malaysia, where about 25,000 Rohingya are registered with the U.N. refugee agency.