BY RON CORBEN, IN BANGKOK
Human rights groups say up to 25 boats of Burmese Muslim Rohingya refugees have set off from Bangladesh since September for Malaysia or Indonesia and may head on to Australia.
Groups of up to 15 refugees may later seek to make the journey onwards to Australia, according to Chris Lewa, Thailand-based co-ordinator for the Arakan Project, a human rights group supporting the Rohingya.
''In terms of [numbers of] boats I would say Australia for some is a secondary movement. But the boat leaving from Bangladesh in Arakan border are mostly heading to Malaysia,'' Ms Lewa said.
''But we have observed a small number of Rohingya and maybe increase in the future of Rohingya who ... are now moving towards Australia.''
Up to 300 Rohingya have made their way to Australia over the past three years, fleeing discrimination and destitution.
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson says the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, mostly live in Rakhine State in western Burma, but face discrimination and official abuse by Burmese authorities.
''Clearly the situation in northern Rakhine state is horrific. There have been no significant changes in the way they are treated by the Burmese authorities,'' Mr Robertson said.
In Bangladesh there are about 20,000 United Nations-registered Rohingya refugees as well as 400,000 unregistered living in sprawling overcrowded camps.
Recently Bangladesh and Burma agreed to see the Rohingya refugees returned to Burma despite many having no national identity papers.
''It's their discriminatory policies and their abuse of the Rohingya over the years that have created this incentive to flight,'' Mr Robertson said.
He said Australia should press Burma to deal humanely with the Rohingya refugees.
''The Australian Government should be pressing very hard on the Burmese to recognise the fact the Burmese government is in many ways a source of this problem,'' he said.
The Rohingyas' plight comes as Australia's Security Intelligence Organisation denied security clearance to three Rohingya asylum-seekers, despite the men being transferred to refugee centres on the mainland.
The three men had previously lived in Penang, Malaysia.
Ms Lewa said, ''These people were just simple refugees involved in some small business to survive in Malaysia.''
The case has been taken up by Amnesty International.