The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Wednesday it had permission from Thailand to access some 850 people, many thought to be from Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, held after raids on hidden camps in Thailand’s far South.
Hundreds of migrants have been arrested in the past week in police sweeps on remote areas in rubber plantations in Songkhla province near the border with Malaysia, leading the UNHCR to seek to confirm whether any of them plan to seek asylum.

“The Thai authorities have agreed in principle to give us access to this group,” Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the UNHCR office, told AFP.

“There are likely to be Rohingya among them, but we can’t confirm their identity without us first talking to them and doing a preliminary assessment.

“We need to determine who these people are, where they came from and what they want,” the spokeswoman said.

She said no date had been agreed yet, but that the UN was pushing to do the interviews “as soon as possible”.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra recently approved temporary assistance for a group of Rohingyas discovered hiding in Songkhla province, 700 kilometres south of Bangkok, until their status is determined.

Rohingya migrants sit inside a temporary shelter at a rubber plantation near the Thai-Malaysian border in Sadao district of Songkhla province on Jan 11, 2013. (Photo by Wichayant Boonchote)

Thousands of Muslim-minority Rohingya have fled communal unrest in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, heading to Thailand and other countries.

Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have left at least 180 people dead in the state since June, and displaced more than 110,000 others, mostly Rohingya.

Myanmar views the roughly 800,000 Rohingya in Rakhine as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and denies them citizenship.

The UN, which has called Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted peoples, has urged Myanmar’s neighbours to open their borders to people escaping the communal violence.

Although tensions have eased since a fresh outbreak of killings in October, concerns have grown about the fate of asylum-seekers setting sail in overcrowded boats.

Thailand has faced pressure from rights groups to do more to help Rohingya migrants who reach its territory. The country has been accused of pushing them into neighbouring countries including Malaysia, which offers them sanctuary.

Human Rights Watch has said women and children are increasingly among the boatloads of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar.

Last year, the Rohingya were the target of ethnic clashes in Rakhine that left more than 100 dead and 115,000 displaced.