JAKARTA — Boats carrying nearly 600 Bangladeshis and long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims from Burma landed in western Indonesia on Sunday, with some migrants needing medical care, officials and a nonprofit organization said. Thousands more are believed to be stranded at sea.
Steve Hamilton, of the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, said his teams were racing to the Aceh province sub-district of Seunuddon, where the boats offloaded.
Of the four vessels that arrived, three had apparently been abandoned by the smugglers and the other ran out of fuel, he said.
Most of the migrants were men, but there also were 98 women and 51 children, officials said, adding that many were sick and weak.
“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 Burma’s troubled state of Arakan with his eldest son three months ago.
“All we could do was pray,” he said, crying as he spoke to The Associated Press by phone.
The Rohingya have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Burma and are denied citizenship.
Attacks on the religious minority by Buddhist mobs in the last three years have sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people since the Vietnam War, sending 100,000 people fleeing, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade.
An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people are now being held in large and small ships in the Malacca Strait and nearby international waters, she said, adding that crackdowns on trafficking syndicates in Thailand and Malaysia have prevented brokers from bringing them to shore.
Some are held even after family members pay for them to be released from the boats.
“I am very concerned about smugglers abandoning boatloads at sea,” Lewa said, noting that some people have been stranded for more than two months.
Tightly confined, and with limited access to food and clean water, their health is inevitably deteriorating, Lewa said, adding that dozens of deaths have been reported so far.
Thailand has long been considered a regional hub for human traffickers.
The tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities began to tighten security on land—a move apparently aimed at appeasing the US government as it prepares to release its annual Trafficking in Persons report next month. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.
Rohingya packing into ships in the Bay of Bengal have been joined in growing numbers by Bangladeshis who are fleeing poverty and are hoping to find a better life elsewhere.
Up until recently, their first stop was Thailand, where they were held in open pens in jungle camps as brokers collected “ransoms” of $2,000 or more from family and friends. Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia or other countries. Those who couldn’t were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.
Since May 1, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, the apparent victims, they say, of smuggling rings.
Thai authorities have since arrested dozens of people, including a powerful mayor. More than 50 police officers are also under investigation.
Similar crackdowns have occurred in Malaysia and Bangladesh.
Officials are bracing for the possibility that more boats will land in Indonesia in the coming days and weeks.
Lt. Col. Achmadi, chief of the Lhoksukon police, said at least 573 Rohingya and Bangladeshis arrived in Aceh early Sunday.
That number could climb as authorities comb the area for migrants dropped off in various locations, he said. They were being taken to a police station and a sports stadium, where they were getting care.
A few were taken to a local clinic for medical attention.
One Rohingya man who arrived Sunday, Muhammad Juned, told the AP that he left Burma two months ago, like most of the others hoping to reach predominantly Muslim Malaysia.
“We just wanted to leave because the situation in Myanmar is no longer conducive for us to stay,” he said.