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6000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims abandoned by smugglers

Illegal immigrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh arrive at the Langkawi police station's multi purpose hall in Langkawi, Malaysia. Source: AP

May 12, 2015

Hundreds of migrants abandoned at sea by smugglers in southeast Asia have reached land in the past two days but an estimated 6000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar remain trapped in crowded, wooden boats, migrant officials and activists said.

One vessel that reached Indonesian waters early yesterday, was stopped by the navy and given food, water and directions to Malaysia.

Worried that boats will start washing to shore with dead bodies, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States and several other foreign governments and international organisations have held emergency meetings, but there are no immediate plans to search for vessels in the busy Malacca Strait.

One of the concerns is what to do with the Rohingya if a rescue is launched.

The minority group is denied citizenship in Myanmar, and other countries have long worried that opening their doors to a few would result in an unstemmable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.

“These are people in desperate straits,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, calling on governments to band together to help those still stranded at sea, some for two months or longer.

“Time is not on their side.” The Rohingya have long suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which considers them illegal settlers from Bangladesh even though their families have lived there for generations.

Attacks on members of the religious minority have left up to 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others from their homes in the last three years. They now live under apartheid-like conditions in crowded camps just outside the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe.

Chris Lewa, director of the non-profit Arakan Project, which has been monitoring boat movements for over a decade, estimates more than 100,000 men, women and children have boarded ships since mid-2012.

Most are trying to reach Malaysia, but recent regional crackdowns on human trafficking networks have sent brokers and agents into hiding, making it impossible for migrants to disembark. Lewa believes up to 7000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis are still on the Malacca Strait and nearby international waters.

In the last two days, 1600 Rohingya have washed to shore in two southeast Asian countries.

After four boats carrying nearly 600 people successfully landed in western Indonesia, with some migrants jumping into the water and swimming, a fifth carrying hundreds more was turned away early Monday.

A Indonesian Navy spokesman said they were trying to go to Malaysia but got thrown off course.

“We didn’t intend to prevent them from entering our territory, but because their destination country was not Indonesia, we asked them to continue to the country where they actually want to go,” he said.

Those who made it to shore aboard the other boats were taken to Lhoksukon, the capital of North Aceh District, to be cared for and questioned.

“We had nothing to eat,” said Rashid Ahmed, a 43-year-old Rohingya man who was on one of the boats. He said he left Myanmar’s troubled state of Rakhine with his eldest son three months ago. Police also found a big wooden ship late Sunday night trapped in shallow waters off Langkawi, an island off Malaysia, and have since located 865 men, 101 women and 52 children, said Jamil Ahmed, the area’s deputy police chief.

Thailand has long been considered a regional hub for human traffickers.

But the tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities began tightening security on land.

Since May 1, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in southern Thailand, the apparent victims of smuggling rings, they say.

Thai authorities have since arrested dozens of people, accused of being trafficking kingpins.

Spooked by the arrests, smugglers are abandoning ships, sometimes disappearing in speedboats, with rudimentary instructions to passengers as to which way to go.

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