LANGKAWI (AFP) - Malaysia turned away two vessels carrying hundreds of migrants as critics accused South-east Asian governments of playing a game of "human ping pong" with the lives of desperate boat people.
Malaysia and Indonesia have vowed to bar ships bearing desperate migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh who are flooding into South-east Asia, triggering warnings that the hardline approach could endanger thousands at sea.
The UN refugee agency and rights groups say thousands of men, women and children are believed stuck out at sea and at risk of starvation and illness after a Thai police crackdown disrupted well-worn people-smuggling routes.
Regional governments have faced mounting calls to urgently launch search and rescue operations rather than driving off boats, and to come up with a coordinated strategy for handling the influx.
But Malaysian patrol ships intercepted two migrant vessels beginning late Wednesday off the northern Malaysian islands of Penang and Langkawi, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity. They carried a combined 600 people, the official added.
"Last night, one boat was pushed back after it entered Malaysian waters off Penang and one more boat was prevented from entering Langkawi waters," the official said. The boat off Langkawi may have been the same one that later turned up in Thai waters, as the Malaysian official said the boat that was sent away also had a banner claiming the passengers to be Rohingya.
'The world will judge'
Rights groups say Thailand - which has called a May 29 regional meeting on the issue - also has a policy of not allowing such boats to berth.
"The Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping pong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "The world will judge these governments by how they treat these most vulnerable men, women, and children."
Indonesia earlier in the week reported sending away a vessel carrying about 400 migrants. Its fate is not known.
Amnesty International said it was "harrowing to think that hundreds of people are right now drifting in a boat perilously close to dying, without food or water, and without even knowing where they are."
Many of the migrants are Rohingya, who suffer state-sanctioned discrimination and have been targeted by sectarian violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
More than 1.3 million Rohingya - viewed by the United Nations as one of the world's most persecuted minorities - live in Myanmar's western Rakhine State.
Malaysia refused to budge Thursday, with the deputy home minister putting blame for the problem squarely in the laps of the migrants' home countries.
"Of course, there is a problem back home in Myanmar with the way they treat the Rohingya people," Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told AFP. "So that is why we need to send a very strong message to Myanmar that they need to treat their people with humanity. They need to be treated like humans, and cannot be so oppressive."
He said Bangladesh also needed to do more to prevent illegal immigrants leaving its shores.