MORE than 1,000 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh have landed on the shores of Indonesia and Thailand after the Malaysian navy reportedly packed them on to a single vessel and abandoned it some 40 nautical miles from the Indonesian coast.
They are just a few of the thousands who have been left stranded on boats across south-east Asia as nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand ignored requests by the United Nations to help them to land.
Weak, hungry and dehydrated, most of the migrants were crammed on to three boats that Indonesian fisherman towed ashore, while another 106 people were found on a Thai island on Thursday and brought to the mainland, authorities said.
Myanmar, in its first official comments as the crisis escalated in the past two weeks, indicated it will not take back migrants who claim to be Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority who are denied citizenship in Myanmar and are effectively stateless. “We cannot say that the migrants are from Myanmar unless we can identify them,” said government spokesman Ye Htut.
“Most victims of human trafficking claim they are from Myanmar is it is very easy and convenient for them.”
Another official, Major Zaw Htay, said Myanmar “will not attend a regional meeting hosted by Thailand if ‘Rohingya’ is mentioned on the invitation”.
Even the name is taboo in Myanmar, which calls them Bengalis and insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though Rohingya have lived in the majority-Buddhist country for generations.
Thailand has convened a meeting of senior officials for 29 May, but the Myanmar officials’ comments demonstrate the difficulty in resolving what has become a spiraling humanitarian crisis.
South-east Asia for years tried to quietly ignore the plight of Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya but in the last three years, more than 120,000 Rohingya have boarded ships to flee to other countries, paying huge sums to human traffickers.
But following arrests in a growing regional crackdown, some captains and smugglers have abandoned the ships, leaving migrants to fend for themselves, according to aid workers and human rights groups.
Most are believed to be heading to Malaysia, a Muslim country that has hosted more than 45,000 Rohingya over the years but now says it cannot accept any more.
Indonesia and Thailand have voiced similar stances.
Earlier this week, about 1,600 migrants were rescued by the Malaysian and Indonesian navies. It was not clear whether those who came ashore yesterday had been turned away earlier.
As boats arrived on land in scattered spots of south-east Asia yesterday, it was increasingly clear that nobody knows how many boats are adrift, or where they are.
“Some of the people told police they were abandoned at sea for days and Malaysian authorities had already turned their boat away,” said Sunarya, a police chief who said the migrants came from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
About 15 miles south of Langsa, fishermen rescued a smaller boat carrying 47 Rohingya, said police chief Dicky Sondani, from Aceh’s Tamiang district.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “alarmed by reports that some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants” ,according to a statement from his office.