By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - A group of Muslim Rohingya asylum-seekers in southern Thailand escaped from an immigration detention center on Tuesday, highlighting the growing desperation of a stateless minority fleeing sectarian violence in Myanmar.
Rights activists are critical of Thailand's response to the influx of Rohingya and have urged the authorities not to deport the refugees back to Myanmar, where they face pervasive discrimination.
The 87 escapees used blades to cut through iron bars and hacked at cement walls before disappearing into nearby rubber plantations, prompting a large search operation, said Suwit Chernsiri, police commander of the southern province of Songkla.
"The men were detained for many months and tensions were high," Suwit told Reuters. The jail break was the second after a group of 30 escaped from a Songkla police station earlier this month.
More than 1,800 Rohingya who fled Myanmar by sea this past year are being detained across Thailand, often in overcrowded centers and shelters, and thousands more have been intercepted and pushed back out to sea by the Thai authorities.
The deputy interior minister expressed fears that the asylum-seekers would harm locals and discourage tourists from visiting Thailand.
"The monsoon season will be over in two months and more boat people will come. We've asked the UNHCR to help fix this problem," Wisarn Techathirawat, deputy interior minister, told Reuters, adding the UN agency only took on a few asylum-seekers.
"The rest of the burden is left to us."
Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country, says the Rohingya are Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. A 1982 Citizenship Act excluded Rohingya Muslims from a list of 135 designated ethnic groups, effectively rendering them stateless.
Thailand also denies Rohingya citizenship and considers them illegal migrants. Bangladesh also does not recognize them.
Many Rohingya hope to end up in neighboring Muslim-majority Malaysia where some have extended families but often fall prey to smugglers and traffickers in Thailand.
A Reuters investigation found that Rohingya who fail to pay for their passage are handed over to traffickers, who sell some men into slavery on Thai fishing boats or force them to work as farmhands. Thailand's navy denies its personnel are involved in smuggling and trafficking networks.
Wisarn told Reuters that the foreign media were guilty of painting the shelters and detention centers in a bad light and that the Rohingya had a tendency to act up for foreign media.
"They know that it is difficult to go to a third country so when they see foreign journalists, they act up for the cameras."
The number of Rohingya boarding boats from Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh reached 34,626 people from June 2012 to May of this year - more than four times the previous year, says the Arakan Project, an advocacy group that has studied Rohingya migration since 2006. Many have ended up in Thailand.
(Editing by Jason Szep and Nick Macfie)