LHOKSEUMAWE, Indonesia (4th UPDATE) – About 900 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants made it to shore in Indonesia and Thailand Friday, May 15, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia’s human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned Southeast Asian summit.
The Indonesian and Malaysian policy of turning away stricken boats filled with Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar has been met with outrage, including from Washington and the United Nations.
Activists estimate up to 8,000 migrants may be at sea in Southeast Asia, with horrific tales emerging of passengers abandoned by abusive smugglers, horribly cramped conditions, starvation and death.
Indonesian police said at least 900 people were rescued by fisherman in Aceh province on the east coast of huge Sumatra island. Search and rescue officials said it was not immediately clear whether they had come from the same boat.
Many passengers said their vessel headed toward Indonesia after earlier being driven away by Malaysia, according to police. At least 61 children were ferried to shore by Indonesian fishermen. (READ: Desperate scenes in Rohingya, Bangladeshi migrant boat rescued off Indonesia)
Nearly 600 migrants were already sheltering in Aceh after managing to get ashore in recent days.
The Indonesian and Malaysian policy of turning away stricken boats filled with starving Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar has been met with outrage, including from Washington and the United Nations.
Activists estimate up to 8,000 migrants may be at sea in Southeast Asia, with horrific tales emerging of starvation and death.
Najib: ‘Very concerned’
In his first public comments on the issue, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he was “very concerned with the plight of migrants” but gave no indication of a policy shift on an issue that has caused finger-pointing among regional governments.
“We are in contact with all relevant parties, with whom we share the desire to find a solution to this crisis,” he said in a statement, without elaborating.
It was not clear whether those “relevant parties” included Myanmar, which faces harsh criticism of its treatment of the Rohingya and on Friday snubbed neighboring Thailand’s call for a regional meeting on the problem on May 29.
The unfolding humanitarian crisis appears to have been precipitated by a Thai police crackdown that has thrown busy people-smuggling routes into chaos.
“We are unlikely to attend… we do not accept it if they (Thailand) are inviting us just to ease the pressure they are facing,” Myanmar presidential office director Zaw Htay told AFP.
Not in Thailand, too
Earlier Friday, another boat carrying about 300 Rohingya left Thailand’s waters, a Thai official said, after authorities repaired its engine and provided some food.
The boat’s passengers included many children and women who wept as they begged for food and water, after arriving near the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe on Thursday.
They told a boatload of journalists of a grim two-month odyssey in which 10 passengers had died of starvation or illness and were tossed overboard.
“We haven’t had anything to eat for a week, there is nowhere to sleep… my children are sick,” said Sajida, 27, a Rohingya who was travelling with her 4 young children.
A Thai official said the passengers – who wanted to reach Malaysia – declined offers to come ashore in Thailand, fearing they would be sent back to Myanmar.
They planned instead to make for Indonesia, the official said.
US demands: ‘Save lives’
Human Rights Watch has called the situation a deadly game of “human ping pong”.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Southeast Asia to “keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need”.
He also reminded authorities they were obliged to rescue stricken boats and to respect an international ban on expelling prospective refugees.
The US State Department demanded that Southeast Asian countries “save lives at sea”.
Spokesman Jeff Rathke said US ambassadors in the region were coordinating with UN agencies and governments on ways to help.
Many of the migrants are now feared to be stranded at sea after a Thai police crackdown threw busy people-smuggling routes into chaos.
Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar on Thursday blamed Myanmar and Bangladesh for the crisis, chastising Yangon in particular for “the way they treat the Rohingya people”.
The Bangladeshis are thought mainly to be economic migrants escaping their country’s grinding poverty.
But the Muslim Rohingya flee by the thousands each year to escape state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and recent sectarian violence against them.
There are more than a million Rohingya living in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, many going back generations, but Myanmar insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. – Nurdin Hasan, AFP/Rappler.com