LANGKAWI, Malaysia – Abandoned at sea, thousands of Bangladeshis and members of Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim-minority appeared Wednesday to have no place to go after two Southeast Asian nations refused to offer refuge to boatloads of hungry men, women and children.
Smugglers have fled wooden trawlers in recent days as fears grew of a massive regional crackdown on human trafficking syndicates, leaving the migrants to fend for themselves.
The United Nations pleaded for countries in the region to keep their borders open and help rescue those stranded, while some parliamentarians slammed the “not-in my-back-yard” attitude.
“We won’t let any foreign boats come in,” Tan Kok Kwee, first admiral of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, said Tuesday.
Unless they’re not seaworthy and sinking, he added, the navy will provide “provisions and send them away.”
Hours earlier, Indonesia pushed back a boat packed with hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, saying they were given food, water and directions to Malaysia – their original destination.
Southeast Asia is in the grips of a spiraling humanitarian crisis, with about 1,600 migrants landing on the shores of the two Muslim-majority countries that over the years have shown the most sympathy for the Rohingyas’ plight.
With thousands more believed to be in the busy Malacca Strait and nearby waters – some stranded for more than two months – activists believe many more boats will try to make land in the coming days and weeks.
Those aboard one boat several kilometres off Malaysia’s Langkawi Island said after four days without food or water that they needed to be rescued. They reported seeing a patrol boat with flashing lights approach late Tuesday, and then slowly pass them by.
Chris Lewa, director of the non-profit Arakan Project, was on the phone with them when it happened, saying she heard their first hopeful cheers turn into sobs and screams.
Labeled by the U.N. one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Denied citizenship by national law, the Muslims are effectively stateless. Access to education and adequate health care is limited and freedom of movement severely restricted.
In the last three years, attacks on Rohingya have left 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others into crowded camps just outside Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where they live under abysmal, apartheid-like conditions, with little or no opportunities for work.
That has sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people the region has seen since the Vietnam War, with an estimated 100,000 men, women and children boarding ships in search of better lives in other countries since June 2012, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
The first stop, up until recently, was Thailand, where migrants were held in jungle camps until their families could raise hefty ransoms so they could continue onward, usually to Malaysia. Recent crackdowns, however, have forced the smugglers to change tactics – instead holding people on small and large ships parked offshore until they collected about $2,000 per person.
Struggling to put a positive face on its dismal human trafficking record, Thai authorities have discovered more than 70 former camps near the border with Malaysia, the biggest of which was found Tuesday. It appeared to be newly abandoned, well-constructed and able to house as many as 800 people, said Lt. Gen. Prakarn Chonlayuth, the southern regional army commander.
Dozens of graves also have been excavated, the victims believed to be Rohingya or Bangladeshi.
Spooked, agents and brokers have all but stopped bringing their human cargo to shore altogether. And in the last three or four days, captains and smugglers have fled their ships, some jumping into speedboats, leaving migrants with no fuel, food or drinking water, survivors told The Associated Press.
In some cases, the Rohingya or Bangladeshis have succeeded in commandeering boats, bringing them as close to land as possible and then swimming the rest of the way.
A group of Southeast Asian parliamentarians, meanwhile, released a statement calling the refusal to accept the refugees “inhumane.”
“Towing migrants out to sea and declaring that they aren’t your problem anymore is not a solution to the wider regional crisis,” said Charles Santiago, a member of parliament in Malaysia. “Any solution must include securing binding commitments from Myanmar to end the persecution of Rohingya that is fueling their exodus.”
He said that many of the Rohingya were asylum seekers fleeing persecution and “disastrous conditions in Myanmar.”
“At the very least, they must be given access to a U.N. refugee screening process and dealt with accordingly,” he said.
Several navies were called upon to carry out search and rescue operations.
Capt. Chayut Navespootikorn of the Royal Thai Navy of Operation Fleet Area 3, said several boats and aircraft had been deployed to scour his country’s territorial waters, but nothing has turned up. He said his fleet was back out there looking Wednesday.
Tan, of the Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, meanwhile said the Langkawi and surrounding waters would be patrolled 24 hours a day by eight ships – but the purpose was not to rescue migrants but to keep them at bay.
More than 1,100 Rohingya and Bangladeshis have landed on the island since Sunday, the country’s Home Ministry said. Of those, 486 were Myanmar citizens and 682 Bangladeshis. They included 993 men, 104 women and 61 children.
Survivors being held in temporary shelters on the island were tightly loaded into four police trucks Wednesday, some waving to reporters as they headed to a detention centre on Malaysia’s mainland.
Hasana, a 15-year-old girl, early said she was orphan, having lost both her parents when she was young. She recalled telling her grandmother she didn’t see a life for herself in Myanmar, where it was a struggle just to get enough food to eat. The teen said she instead decided to join a group of friends who wanted to go to Malaysia.
She paid $200 for what turned out to be a harrowing journey by boat, she said, describing how one man was savagely attacked just for asking for food.
Looking around her at the chaos, she now worriedly asked: “Am I going to be sent back?”