Refugee search-and-rescue team launches ship in South-east Asia

A Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) crew drives a boat to return to the MOAS ship, MV Phoenix, at the Chao Phraya river in Thailand.
A Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) crew drives a boat to return to the MOAS ship, MV Phoenix, at the Chao Phraya river in Thailand.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAMUT PRAKAN, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The humanitarian team that sent ships to rescue refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean will launch a South-east Asia mission this weekend to comb the seas for boat people, including Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

American entrepreneur Christopher Catrambone and his Italian wife Regina set up the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) in response to the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, when several hundred migrants drowned after their boat sank, as they tried to cross to Europe from Libya.

In Samut Prakan, a Bangkok suburb on the Gulf of Thailand, Catrambone on Friday took journalists on a tour of the M.Y. Phoenix, whose crew will coordinate with coast guards, navies and NGOs to track and rescue boat people as needed.

"If we can save one life, this entire mission is worth it,"Mr Catrambone said.

For years, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled by boat from Myanmar, where they live in apartheid-like conditions, face violence and are denied access to health care, employment and education. The smuggling boats also carried migrants fleeing poverty in Bangladesh.

However, the discovery last year of mass graves and trafficking camps along the Thai-Malaysia border led to a crackdown on the traffickers, forcing them to abandon the ships and leaving thousands of migrants stranded at sea.

Aid agencies and rights groups criticised Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia for playing "ping-pong at sea" and not allowing the refugees and migrants to disembark. Eventually they were allowed to land in Malaysia - their main destination - as well as neighbouring Indonesia.

Since then, the number of migrants leaving Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat has dropped off sharply because of Thai and Bangladeshi crackdowns on human smugglers.

According to Mr Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project rights group, about 1,500 people sailed from Bangladesh and Myanmar between September and December 2015, compared with 32,000 people tracked during the same period in 2014.

The M.Y. Phoenix's crew will use drones as "eyes in the sky" to search for distressed boats, but if anyone is rescued, disembarkation will still be a problem.

When asked by a journalist if the region's governments would allow Rohingya boat people to land, ship captain Thomas Johansen replied: "Negative. When we establish communication with them (government officials), the ball is with them, they have to reply, they have to do something."

The M.Y. Phoenix, which has been docked at a Thai port for repairs since November, is scheduled to set off to sea on Saturday, south towards Langkawi, Malaysia, and then spend three weeks in international waters in the Andaman Sea.

MOAS is partnering with Bangkok-based advocacy group Fortify Rights, which will manage data collection and provide guidance on the situation of the Rohingya.

Thailand's crackdown on human trafficking has not eliminated the flow of people leaving, and people are still voluntarily leaving on boats, Mr Catrambone said.

"Rohingya have faced abuses for decades and untold numbers have died at sea," Fortify Rights executive director Matthew Smith said in a statement. "Until the root causes are addressed in Myanmar, we're going to see men, women, and children risk their lives in perilous journeys at sea."