The United Nations refugee agency is urging Thailand not to deport a group of Rohingya Muslim boat people, saying they could be in danger if they are sent back to Burma.
UNHCR spokesperson Vivian Tan says that the group, which is allegedly fleeing sectarian violence and persecution in Burma's western Rakhine state, may be subject to punishment upon their return.
"We're strongly advocating that they shouldn't be sent back," says Tan. "We're worried they may be punished, because there are rules where if they leave they need to apply for permits, and if they come back without these permits, we don't know what could happen - there might be some punitive measures."
Tan says U.N. officials are meeting with Thai authorities Thursday in an attempt to gain access to the group so it can "find out exactly who they are and what they need."
Thai officials said Wednesday the group of 73 migrants, including women and children, must be deported by land to Burma, but their current status is not known.
The migrants were detained by Thai authorities this week after they were found drifting in a small, overcrowded boat off the resort town of Phuket, well short of what authorities say was their final destination, Malaysia.
Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, says that Thailand should suspend any plan to deport the refugees until the U.N. determines whether they have legitimate claims for protection.
He says Thai authorities, who are reluctant to absorb migrant workers from neighboring countries, must come up with a better policy for dealing with boat people.
"For the first time, Thai authorities have intercepted a boat, filled up not with young Rohingya men seeking work in Malaysia, but families with young children and women," he says. "They are traveling together claiming they are escaping persecution, human rights violations, and violence in their homeland."
Thai authorities do not accept boat people, but instead give them supplies to continue their often dangerous journeys to their final destination.
The result is often deadly. In 2008 and 2009, hundreds of Muslim Rohingya refugees are believed to have died after being turned away by Thailand.
Sunai says the problem is not going away, and that Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations must come up with a new policy to provide protection in coordination with U.N. agencies.
"We want Thailand to come up with a clear policy that recognizes Thailand's international obligations to protect asylum seekers and refugees," he says. "And in this case it is very clear that political violence, communal conflicts and human rights violations in Burma's Arakan state are getting worse and worse, and we expect there will be more Rohingya families traveling by sea in order to seek refuge in Southeast Asia."
The latest group of asylum seekers say there were headed for Malaysia, which has become a common destination for Rohingya refugees. On Sunday, about 450 Rohingya landed in Malaysia after a boat journey that left one person dead.
Rohingya are fleeing Burma's western Rakhine, or Arakan, state, where an outbreak of violence in recent months has killed dozens and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Rights groups accuse Burma's government of systematic persecution against members of the ethnic group, who are considered to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.