Thailand finds migrant boat, declines permission to land

Rohingya passengers on a boat that was found drifting off the coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea on May 14, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Rohingya passengers on a boat that was found drifting off the coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea on May 14, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (Reuters, AFP, Bloomberg) - Thailand has found a boat drifting off its west coast carrying 300 migrants but has refused to grant it permission to land, a senior police officer said on Thursday.

"We declined them entry to the country but we gave them food and water to adhere to our human rights obligations," regional police official Major General Puttichat Akhachan told Reuters.

The boat was found 17 km off the coast of the southern island of Koh Lipe, he said.

Earlier on Thursday an Agence France-Presse reporter had said a boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants - including many young children - was found drifting in the same waters. The reporter cited passengers as saying several people had died over the last few days.

"About 10 people died during the journey. We threw their bodies into the water," one migrant shouted in Rohingya to a boat carrying reporters.

"There are 300 of us.... we have been at sea for two months. We want to go to Malaysia but we have not reached there yet."

The words "We are Myanmar Rohingya" were daubed in English on a black flag tethered to the boat.

Migrants on the boat did not want to land in Thailand but instead wanted to go to Malaysia or Indonesia, said Somchai Na Bangchang, a rear admiral in the Royal Thai Navy. "We did not push back the boat or kick them out," Somchai said.

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.

The boat off Langkawi may have been the same one that turned up off Koh Lipe, as the Malaysian official said the boat that was sent away also had a banner claiming the passengers to be Rohingya.

Several thousand migrants have been abandoned at sea by smugglers following a Thai crackdown on human trafficking. The UN refugee agency UNHCR has warned the situation could develop into a "massive humanitarian crisis".

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.

However, Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha questioned whether it was fair to ask a "middle country" like Thailand to take responsibility for the Rohingya.

He said Thailand would not open permanent refugee camps for them, and if Thailand were to open camps they would only be to temporarily detain them to be prosecuted for illegal entry.

"If they break the law and land in Thailand, how can we take care of them?" Prayuth told reporters Thursday. "Where will the budget come from? That money will need to come from Thai people's taxes, right?"

As dusk fell several visibly emaciated men from the migrant boat found off Koh Lipe jumped into the sea to retrieve food packages dropped by a Thai navy helicopter.

An AFP reporter saw one of the men eat handfuls of raw instant noodles in the water before swimming back to the boat.

Sajida, 27, travelling with her four young children said she was also trying to reach Malaysia, but the boat was set adrift by people smugglers who damaged the engine and fled.

"We haven't had anything to eat for a week, there is nowhere to sleep... my children are sick," she told AFP.

A Thai navy officer on Koh Lipe said they planned to help fix the engine "so they can go to their destination."

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