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Southeast Asian Countries Object to Influx of Boat People

By Bruce Hunter, Thengi Htike
Voice of America
May 15, 2015

Southeast Asian governments continue to express unwillingness to take in boat loads of migrants and refugees abandoned at sea by people smugglers, worsening an already dire humanitarian crisis.

Activists estimate as many as 8,000 so-called boat people remain adrift, many without adequate food or water, after a Thai crackdown on a vast people-smuggling ring disrupted the criminal transportation networks.

Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand - three countries where the migrants and refugees have tried to reach - say the desperate migrants are not their responsibility, rejecting appeals by the U.N. and rights groups.

More than 700 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants arrived in Indonesia on Friday after they were rescued by fishing boats when their vessel sank off the coast of Aceh province.

Nearly 600 migrants were also rescued on Sunday by the Indonesian navy. Officials say those boat people are now being given food and shelter in the north Aceh region while the government consults with the U.N. and other international bodies.

Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi on Thursday said his country must "send the right message: that they are not welcome here." Other Malaysian officials said sea and air patrols were being ramped up to prevent "illegal intrusion."

Earlier this week, over 1,000 abandoned boat people swam ashore in Malaysia. Officials say they are now being held in detention camps while preparations are being made to send them elsewhere.

Other boats carrying hundreds of people have been intercepted by the Malaysian and Indonesian navies, which after providing the migrants with emergency food and water supplies, turned them away.

The U.N. refugee agency this week appealed for an international search and rescue operation to help the boat people. Many survivors have said those stuck at sea are hungry and sick, and some have died.

Many of the refugees are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, where they are the victims of persecution that Human Rights Watch says amounts to ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Rohingya people in Myanmar are largely denied basic rights such as citizenship and freedom of movement.

Others on board the boats are thought to be Rohingya and other migrants who are trying to escape poverty in Bangladesh.

The boat people are victims of a large-scale human trafficking campaign under which the migrants were promised jobs in neighboring countries but were later held for ransom or sold, essentially as slaves.

After years of pressure by international rights groups, Thailand recently moved to crack down on the multimillion dollar people-smuggling ring. In the process, it found several abandoned jungle camps, including some that contained mass graves with dozens of bodies. Officials have arrested more than a dozen alleged smugglers, including some senior local officials. 

Listen to VOA's Steve Herman interview IOM country director Jeffrey Labovitz in Thailand regarding the refugee/migrant situation in Southeast Asia:

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