|Thai authorties are expected to deport Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar [Reuters]
While the Thai authorities continue to face allegations of abuse of Muslim Rohingya migrants, the policy of rejecting and forcefully repatriating asylum seekers landing on Thai soil is not new.
But increased media attention to the plight of the Rohingya and images of Thai soldiers stood guard over rows of bedraggled men have highlighted the desperation of a minority group effectively rendered stateless by the Myanmar government.
According to Kraisak Choonhavan, a Thai government official, between 2004 and 2008, at least 4,866 Rohingya arrived in Thailand, many of whom have since been repatriated to Myanmar.
In December alone, nearly a thousand arrived along Thailand's Andaman coastline.
Travelling in rickety wooden boats from Myanmar, the winter months when the tides are at their lowest are viewed as the best time to set sail.
Human Rights Watch says the orders to deport the Rohingya are part of a broader policy on the part of Thai authorities aimed at keeping the stateless ethnic group out of Thailand.
"This is not a one-off thing where the authorities decide to deport who they see as illegal immigrants," Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand and Myanmar researcher, told Al Jazeera.
"There is a policy aimed at the Rohingya... a directive given from higher-ranking officials."
|Rohingya migrants are also facing the prospect of deportation from Indonesia [Reuters]
Sunai is referring to clams by the Thai military that the Rohingya may join the Muslim separatist movement in the country's south – a conflict which has claimed more than 3,000 lives over the past five years.
Al Jazeera has spoken to members of a civilian militia recruited and trained by the Thai military to monitor the movements of Rohingya refugees and to round up illegal immigrants.
"We practise how to shoot guns and train after dark because sometimes the Rohingya come out at night by boat and run up into the hills," said Saman Manee Jansuk, a local resident living near the Thailand-Myanmar border
"We don't want them coming here."
A senior Thai military officer overseeing the treatment of the Rohingya has himself been heavily involved in previous and sometimes controversial military operations in the south.
"These people are starving and simply want to feed their families"
The Arakan Project
Colonel Manat Kongpan, now chief of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) in the southern province of Ranong, was one of the officers charged over the deaths of 28 Muslim men at the Krue Se mosque siege in the town of Pattani in 2004.
Repeated requests for an interview with Manat were refused, but he has been quoted as saying that Thailand has "a duty to protect itself".
It is unclear though why ISOC, a shadowy army division revived after the 2006 military coup, has become involved with handling the case of the Rohingya, rather than the Thai immigration or border authorities who normally process migrants.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a non-governmental organisation documenting the plight of the Rohingya, told Al Jazeera that she has seen no evidence that Rohingya migrants have joined separatist fighters in southern Thailand.
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group from the northern Rakhine state of western Myanmar, formerly known as Arakan state.
Their history dates to the early 7th century, when Arab Muslim traders settled in the area.
They are physically, linguistically and culturally similar to South Asians, especially Bengali people.
According to Amnesty International, they suffer from human rights violations under the Myanmar military government, and many have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh as a result.
The vast majority of them have effectively been denied Myanmar citizenship.
In 1978 an estimated 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh.
Approximately 20,000 Rohingya are living in UN refugee camps in Bangladesh.
"There is no evidence they have joined any movement. These people are starving and simply want to feed their families.
"They could not do this in Myanmar, and many found themselves destitute in refugee camps in Bangladesh," she said.
"They do not care about some ideology – political or religious."
But according to a leading Thai forensics expert, "explosives residue" was found on one of the Rohingya boats that landed on Thailand's Andaman coast in December.
Dr Porntip Rojanasunan, a forensic pathologist working for the ministry of justice, was asked by the Thai military to examine the contents of some of the boats, specifically to examine whether the refugees may be linked to fighters in the south, and if they held any objects that may be a "security threat".
"There were substances and chemicals found that can be used in explosives ... there was actually quite a significant level," she told Al Jazeera.
Asked whether the traces could be directly linked to the separatist movement in the south, she said: "I can only give the authorities what my results of the tests were."
"Just because a group of Muslims come to this country, on their way to a better life, does not mean they will fight the government of Thailand"
Islamic Centre of Thailand
"But I am aware of the factor that these boats may have been used for other purposes in their countries of origin ... before they were used by the refugees."
"The Thai authorities may question them about these findings," she added.
Parakorn Priyakorn, of the Islamic Centre of Thailand, told Al Jazeera the policies of previous governments towards southern Thailand, had created "an atmosphere of suspicion" towards immigrants of Muslim background.
"Just because a group of Muslims come to this country, on their way to a better life, does not mean they will fight the government of Thailand," he said.
"I understand that we cannot handle so many migrants, but we also need to consider human rights issues."
The official justification given by the Thai government for deporting the Rohingya is that the country is simply unable to handle the influx of immigrants.
"We cannot afford carrying the burden of taking care of another 200,000-300,000 people," Suthep Thaugsuban, the deputy prime minister, told the Reuters news agency earlier this month.
"They come from Myanmar and that is where they will be deported to," he said.
But the Myanmar government has denied that the migrants recently seen arriving in Thailand, India and Indonesia could have come from its territory because the Rohingya are not among its officially recognised ethnic groups.
According to the UNHCR, at least 230,000 Rohingya now live a precarious, stateless existence in Bangladesh alone, having fled their homes in Myanmar's North Rakhine state.
Those who have not fled are restricted from travel inside the country, while human rights groups say Rohingya face abuses by the Myanmar military that make the recent crackdown on democracy protests seem pale in comparison.
Gabriele Marranci, professor of anthropology of Islam at the National University of Singapore, told Al Jazeera the main reason the Rohingya are "unwanted" in Thailand, and also facing the prospect of deportation from Indonesia, is that they "lack strategic value".
"There seems to be a consensus among countries neighbouring Myanmar to also treat the Rohingya as a stateless group which has no place in their societies," he said.
"It is interesting to note that other groups, such as the Palestinians who are fighting for a state, and recognition, are given attention primarily attributed to their strategic significance in the Middle East; but a minority group such as the Rohingya, who are unable and unwilling to start a conflict in the region, are systematically treated as gypsies to be pushed out into the ocean."
Source: Al Jazeera