KOH LIPE - Thailand has found more than 100 migrants on a southern island but thousands remain adrift as boats are pushed back out into Southeast Asia’s seas by governments who have ignored a U.N. call for a coordinated rescue.
The crisis has arisen because smugglers have abandoned boats crammed with migrants, many of them thirsty and sick, in the Andaman Sea following a Thai crackdown on human trafficking. The clamp-down has made the preferred trafficking route through Thailand too risky for criminals preying on Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis seeking to escape poverty.
About 2,500 migrants have landed on Indonesia’s western tip and the northwest coast of Malaysia over the past week. Thailand found 106 more on Friday on an island in the southern province of Phang Nga, provincial governor Prayoon Rattanasenee told Reuters. It was unclear how they got to the island, he said. ‘Most of them are men but there are also women and children,’ Prayoon said. ‘We are trying to determine whether they were victims of human trafficking.’
Those that have made it to land are the lucky ones. Two boats that crossed the Malacca Strait from the Thailand-Malaysia side have been turned away by the Indonesian navy, and on Friday another was towed out to sea by the Thai navy. The boat towed out by Thailand was again near Thai waters early on Saturday, after heading first toward Indonesia and then Malaysia on Friday, said Thai Lieutenant Commander Veerapong Nakprasit.
The Thai and Indonesian navies have restocked the boats they have pushed back with food and water and said the migrants did not want to come ashore in their territory. But those on board have nowhere to go, and are not skilled navigators. The region’s governments have been criticised by the International Organization for Migration for playing ‘maritime ping-pong’ with the migrants and endangering their lives.
The United Nations this week urged governments to fulfil an obligation to rescue those at sea and ‘keep their borders and ports open to help the vulnerable people who are in need’. The United Nations said the deadly pattern of migration by sea across the Bay of Bengal would continue unless Myanmar itself ended discrimination. Most of Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state in the west of the predominantly Buddhist country. Almost 140,000 were displaced in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
Myanmar uses the term ‘Bengalis’ for the Rohingya, a term most Rohingya reject because it implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived in Myanmar for generations. Thailand has called for talks with Myanmar and Malaysia to resolve the crisis. Myanmar had not received any invitation to talks and would not attend if the word Rohingya was used, Zaw Htay, a senior official from the president’s office, said on Saturday. ‘We haven’t received any formal invitation from Thailand officially yet,’ he said in an emailed response to questions from Reuters. ‘And another thing, if they use the term ‘Rohingya’ we won’t take part in it since we don’t recognise this term. The Myanmar government has been protesting against the use of it all along.’