Catholic volunteers in Thailand aid refugees from Burma

Bangkok, Thailand, Sep 6, 2013 / 12:13 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Responding to a humanitarian crisis pushing tens of thousands of a minority ethnic group in Burma from their homes, Caritas Thailand is caring for refugees who have fled violence in their home country.

“Caritas Thailand has especially dedicated this year to address refugee issues as one of its priority concerns,” Fr. Pairat Sriparasert, secretary general of Caritas Thailand, told CNA last month. 

The Rohingya people are minority group who live in Burma's Rakhine state and practice Islam. They have long been persecuted by the country's Buddhist majority, and in 2012, riots in Rakhine displaced some 125,000 Rohingya.

“The Rohingya crisis is a major and crucial burning issue for Thailand and for its Southeast Asian neighbors,” Fr. Sriparasert explained.

Many Rohingya flee to Bangladesh or to Thailand, where they seek to make their way to Malaysia.

Fr. Sriparasert said “it is estimated that about 2,000 Rohingya are detained in various detentions centers of Thailand.”

He fears that “the numbers may further increase once the monsoon season stops and the sea calms down in next few months.”

Many Rohingya flee Burma by boat, paying traffickers to escape discrimination in their home country.

“They are vulnerable to risks of abuse, harassment, exploitation, and human trafficking, which keeps them under constant fear and distress,” lamented Fr. Sriparasert.

When they arrive in Thailand, Rohingya refugees are put into separate detention centers. Men are detained in southern Thailand, whereas women and children are confined in overcrowded temporary shelters which do not meet the minimum standards of detainees living condition, located in the country's northern provinces.

Fr. Sriparasert noted that Caritas is partnering with the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Services as well as various diocesan social action centers to provide social and health services to the refugees at the government detention centers.

In collaboration with the government and non-governmental organizations, crisis relief services are established to investigate cases of abuse, especially among children and women.

“At times of vulnerably, women, children, and also men are lured to human trafficking, resulting in degrading, inhumane and dangerous working conditions.” Rohingya refugees in Thailand, he said, are not given work permits and as a result are underpaid.

Fr. Anucha Chaowpraeknoi, chaplain for the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Services, told CNA Sept. 3 that the group's volunteers “have been doing tremendous work, offering counseling, medical assistance, and supplying basic health care and hygiene products.”

“We are trying to improve their dignity of life in the detention centers,” he explained.

“These efforts reinforce…our Catholic faith's call to love, to serve the needy, to be peace builders, and to facilitate an inter-religious dialogue.”

The Rohingya have suffered decades of discrimination under Burmese law since the nation gained independence in 1948. Both the Muslim and Christian minorities have reported persecution in the country, whose population is nearly 90 percent Buddhist.

Burma was ruled by a military junta from 1962 to 2011, when reforms were introduced. Despite this, the nation remains one of the world's most corrupt. Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked it at 172 out of 174, ahead of only Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia.

Burmese law effectively denies citizenship to the Rohingya, and both the government and society consider them to be illegal immigrants.

According to the BBC, Rohingya in Burma must get permission to marry, which typically involves extortion by government officials. Once married, they are required to sign an agreement stating they will have no more than two children.

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