LANGSA, Indonesia (AFP) - About 900 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants made it to shore in Indonesia and Thailand on Friday, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to South-east Asia’s human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit.
The Indonesian and Malaysian policy of turning away stricken boats filled with Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar has been met with outrage, including from Washington and the United Nations.
Activists estimate up to 8,000 migrants may be at sea in South-east Asia, with horrific tales emerging of passengers abandoned by abusive smugglers, horribly cramped conditions, starvation and death.
In his first public comments on the issue, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he was “very concerned with the plight of migrants” but gave no indication of a policy shift on an issue that has caused regional finger-pointing.
“We are in contact with all relevant parties, with whom we share the desire to find a solution to this crisis,” he said in a statement, without elaborating. It was not clear whether those “relevant parties” included Myanmar, which faces harsh criticism of its treatment of Rohingya and on Friday snubbed neighbouring Thailand’s call for a regional meeting on the problem on May 29.
The unfolding humanitarian crisis appears to have been precipitated by a Thai police crackdown that has thrown busy people-smuggling routes into chaos just as a surge of migrants has taken to the sea.
“We are unlikely to attend... we do not accept it if they (Thailand) are inviting us just to ease the pressure they are facing,” Myanmar presidential office director Zaw Htay told AFP.
‘We cried for help’
Indonesian police said at least 797 people were rescued Friday by fisherman in Aceh province on the east coast of huge Sumatra island. One overloaded boat was sinking off the coast when local fishermen came to the rescue, picking up migrants as they jumped from the stricken vessel, police said.
Muhammad Amin, a Rohingya, told AFP that the boat had first been turned back by the Indonesian navy towards Malaysian waters, only for the Malaysian navy to direct it back towards Indonesia.
In an increasingly desperate situation – after nearly two months at sea and the crew having abandoned ship – he said the Bangladeshis attacked the Rohingya and threw some of them overboard, and he was forced to swim for hours before being rescued.
“As we were swimming, we saw a fishing boat, and we cried for help, then fishermen pulled us one by one from the sea,” said the 35-year-old.
Search and rescue officials said it was not immediately clear whether all those rescued had come from the same boat. At least 61 children were ferried to shore by Indonesian fishermen.
Nearly 600 migrants were already sheltering in Aceh after managing to get ashore in recent days.
A military spokesman said earlier the navy had prevented a boat carrying migrants from entering Indonesian waters but he later clarified that the boat had been empty, and the navy found migrants in the water nearby and helped them to shore.
‘Human ping pong’
In Thailand, the navy discovered 106 Rohingya on an island off the coast of Phang Na province but it was unclear whether their boat had a problem or they had been abandoned, the provincial governor said.
Earlier Friday, a boat carrying about 300 Rohingya left Thailand’s waters, a Thai official said, after authorities repaired its engine and provided food.
A Thai official said the passengers – who wanted to reach Malaysia – declined offers to come ashore in Thailand, fearing they would be sent back to Myanmar. They planned instead to make for Indonesia, the official said.
Regional governments have been roundly chastised for what Human Rights Watch described as a deadly game of “human ping pong” in rejecting migrants.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein voiced serious concern, saying he was “appalled” at the migrant boat push-backs “which will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths.”
The Muslim Rohingya flee by the thousands each year to escape state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and recent sectarian violence against them.
There are more than a million Rohingya living in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, many going back generations, but Myanmar insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshis are thought mainly to be economic migrants escaping their country’s grinding poverty.