BANGKOK (Reuters) - More than 200 boat people held in southern Thailand will be pushed back out to sea, police said on Monday, despite calls by rights group to stop a policy that puts would-be asylum seekers at risk.
Around 259 people were found at sea on Saturday and were arrested for illegal entry.
Their discovery around 3 km (1.86 miles) from the coast follows what one NGO said was a "major maritime exodus" from neighboring Myanmar of Rohingya, a mostly stateless Muslim minority group from the country's west.
"On average around 900 people left by boat from the middle of last month. We saw a major maritime exodus of nearly 10,000 people," said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya advocacy group, adding that increasing desperation was one reason for the departures.
Authorities in Thailand's Kapoe district said it was unclear whether any of the group were Rohingya but interviews with some of the group showed they were heading for Malaysia to find work or, in the women's' cases, join their husbands.
The 259 will be put back on boats and sent back to Myanmar, said Police Colonel Sanya Prakobphol, head of Kapoe district police.
"They are Muslims from Myanmar ... They are illegal migrants," Sanya told Reuters by telephone.
"If they come in then we must push them back ... once they have crossed the sea border into Myanmar then that's considered pushing them back. What they do next is their problem."
Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar's Rakhine state since 2012, when violent clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists killed hundreds and made about 140,000 homeless.
Many were Rohingya, who now often live in apartheid-like conditions and have little or no access to jobs, schools or healthcare.
The boats often sail from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand where, as Reuters reported last year, human trafficking-gangs hold thousands of boat people in brutal jungle camps until relatives pay ransoms to secure their release.
Testimonies from Bangladeshi and Rohingya survivors in an October Reuters Special Report provided evidence of a dramatic shift in human-trafficking tactics.
Sanya said the 259 people were currently being held at a community hall and that his team were "looking after them like relatives" but that they would soon be put back on boats.
"Who will feed them? I'm struggling day to day to feed them," said Sanya.
"No country wants an outsider to come in to their house."
Thailand was downgraded in June to the lowest category in the U.S. State Department's annual ranking of the world's worst human-trafficking centers, putting it in the same category as North Korea and the Central African Republic.
The same month, the Thai military vowed to "prevent and suppress human trafficking", after having seized power from an elected government on May 22.
Editing by Nick Macfie