LANGKAWI, Malaysia— Abandoned at sea, thousands of Bangladeshis and members of Burma’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim-minority appeared Wednesday to have no place to go after two Southeast Asian nations refused to offer refuge to boatloads of hungry men, women and children.
Smugglers have fled wooden trawlers in recent days as fears grew of a massive regional crackdown on human trafficking syndicates, leaving migrants to fend for themselves.
The United Nations pleaded for countries in the region to keep their borders open and help rescue those stranded, while a group of parliamentarians slammed the “not-in my-back-yard” attitude.
“We won’t let any foreign boats come in,” Tan Kok Kwee, first admiral of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency said Tuesday.
Unless they’re not seaworthy and sinking, he added, the navy will provide “provisions and send them away.”
Hours earlier, Indonesia pushed back a boat packed with hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, saying they were given food, water and directions to Malaysia—their original destination.
Southeast Asia is in the grips of a spiraling humanitarian crisis, with around 1,600 migrants landing on the shores of the two Muslim-majority countries that over the years have shown the most sympathy for the Rohingyas’ plight.
With thousands more believed to be in the busy Malacca Strait and nearby waters—some stranded for more than two months—activists believe many more boats will try to make land in coming days and weeks.
One boat begged Tuesday to be rescued off Malaysia’s Langkawi Island, but it became clear by nightfall no help was on the way. An activist said she could hear the children crying when she got a call through to the boat.
Labeled by the United Nations one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Burma. Denied citizenship by national law, the Muslims are effectively stateless. Access to education and adequate health care is limited and freedom of movement severely restricted.
In the last three years, attacks on Rohingya have left 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others into crowded camps just outside Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s Arakan State, where they live under abysmal, apartheid-like conditions, with little or no opportunity for work.
That has sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people the region has seen since the Vietnam War, with an estimated 100,000 men, women and children boarding ships in search of better lives in other countries since June 2012, according to the UN refugee agency.
The first stop, up until recently, was Thailand, where migrants were held in jungle camps until their families could raise hefty ransoms so they could continue onward, usually to Malaysia. Recent crackdowns, however, have forced the smugglers to change tactics—instead holding people on small and large ships parked offshore until they collected around US$2,000 per person.
Struggling to put a positive face on its dismal human trafficking record, Thai authorities have discovered more than 70 former camps near the border with Malaysia, the biggest of which was found Tuesday. It appeared to be newly abandoned, well-constructed and able to house as many as 800 people, said Lt-Gen Prakarn Chonlayuth, the southern regional army commander.
Dozens of graves also have been excavated, the victims believed to be Rohingya or Bangladeshi.
Spooked, agents and brokers have all but stopped bringing their human cargo to shore altogether. And in the last three or four days, captains and smugglers have fled their ships, some jumping into speedboats, leaving migrants with no fuel, food or drinking water, survivors told The Associated Press.
In some cases, the Rohingya or Bangladeshis have succeeded in commandeering boats, bringing them as close to land as possible and then swimming the rest of the way.
On Tuesday, one such boat with hundreds of Rohingyas was stranded not far from Malaysia’s Langkawi. It includes about 50 women, said Chris Lewa, director of the nonprofit Arakan Project, which has documented the plight of Rohingyas.
They told her by phone their captain had fled days ago, and that they needed to be rescued.
Soon after, Lewa said she heard cheers, and people on board spotted a white vessel with flashing lights. When they realized authorities weren’t going to help them, women started to scream.
“Oh! I could hear children crying,” Lewa told AP. “It was terrible! I can hear them.”
A group of Southeast Asian parliamentarians, meanwhile, released a statement calling the refusal to accept the refugees “inhumane.”
“Towing migrants out to sea and declaring that they aren’t your problem anymore is not a solution to the wider regional crisis,” said Charles Santiago, a member of parliament in Malaysia. “Any solution must include securing binding commitments from Myanmar to end the persecution of Rohingya that is fueling their exodus.”
He said that many of the Rohingya were asylum seekers fleeing persecution and “disastrous conditions in Myanmar.”
“At the very least, they must be given access to a UN refugee screening process and dealt with accordingly,” he said.
Tan, of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, said the waters around Langkawi would be patrolled 24 hours a day by eight ships.
More than 1,100 migrants have landed on the island since Sunday, the country’s Home Ministry said. Of those, 486 were from Burma and 682 were Bangladeshis. They included 993 men, 104 women and 61 children.
For now, survivors on the island were being held in two separate holding centers—women and children in the sports hall and the men in another facility. But they would soon be transferred to a detention center on the Malaysian mainland.
Hasana, 15, was standing with another girl outside her temporary quarters.
She said she was an orphan, having lost both her parents when she was young, and that she told her grandmother she didn’t see a life for herself in Burma, where it was a struggle just to get enough food to eat. The teen said she had decided to join a group of friends who wanted to go to Malaysia.
She paid $200 for what turned out to be a harrowing journey by boat, she said, describing how one man was savagely attacked just for asking for food.
Looking around her at the chaos, she now worriedly asked: “Am I going to be sent back?”