Saturday 1 October 2016

UN warns that 6000 asylum seekers are trapped at sea off south-east Asia

Published 13/05/2015 | 08:57

A boat that carried hundreds of migrants for three months at sea Credit: Olivia Harris
A boat that carried hundreds of migrants for three months at sea Credit: Olivia Harris

Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia will continue to push boats holding thousands of migrants back to sea, a senior official said despite a UN appeal for a rapid rescue operation to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

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Several thousand migrants, many of them hungry and sick, are adrift in Southeast Asian seas after they were abandoned by smugglers following a Thai government crackdown on human trafficking, the United Nations said.

"Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have decided not to receive boat people, as far as I am aware," Major General Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, spokesman for Thailand's ruling junta, told Reuters.

Read More: Hundreds of refugees arrive in Malaysia, Indonesia after Thai crackdown

He declined to comment on the UN refugee agency UNHCR's appeal on Tuesday for an international search and rescue operation to rescue the thousands stranded on the seas between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Malaysia and Indonesia have not made public their official policy on future migrant arrivals.

Malaysia's Home Ministry declined to comment on the UN rescue appeal and Indonesian officials were not immediately available to comment.

In Thailand, authorities are enforcing a long-held policy to push boats back.

The policy involves offering food, water fuel and medical assistance to migrant boats but preventing them from landing.

Read More: Malaysia to turn away boat migrants

There has been a surge in migrants from impoverished Bangladesh and Myanmar to Malaysia and Indonesia following the clampdown in Thailand, usually the first destination in the region's people-smuggling network.

Thailand ordered a clean-up of suspected traffickers' camps last week after 33 bodies, believed to be of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, were found in shallow graves near the Malaysian border.

That has led to many migrants being left out at sea.

A senior Malaysian maritime official said on Tuesday, after over 1,000 people arrived on the Malaysian island of Langkawi at the weekend, that any more boats trying to land would be turned back

"We don't allow them in," said First Admiral Tan Kok Kwee, northern region head of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. "It's a policy matter."

Read More: Over 50 police officers punished over links to human trafficking

Indonesia provided food, water and medical supplies to around 500 passengers on a boat off the coast of Aceh on Monday, before sending the vessel toward Malaysia.

Nearly 600 migrants were rescued from overcrowded wooden boats stranded off Indonesia's Aceh province the previous day.

The Indonesian Navy said the passengers of the boat they sent on wanted to go to Malaysia, not Indonesia.

But advocacy group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights criticised the Indonesian action.

"Towing migrants out to sea and declaring that they aren't your problem any more is not a solution to the wide regional crisis," ABHR Chairperson and Malaysian lawmaker Charles Santiago said in a statement.

Read More: Boats carrying 500 Myanmar migrants wash ashore in western Indonesia

Many of the arrivals are Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority from Myanmar described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

An estimated 25,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya boarded rickety smugglers' boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many in the same period of 2014, the UNHCR has said.

"When countries such as Thailand implement a push back policy, we find Rohingya bodies washing ashore," said Sunai Phasuk at Human Rights Watch in Thailand.

"If these three countries move forward with push backs, blood will be on their hands."

A Rohingya child being treated by Malaysian medical staff Credit: Olivia Harris
A Rohingya child being treated by Malaysian medical staff Credit: Olivia Harris
Thailand and Malaysia's refusal to accept any more refugees has left about 7,000 boatpeople adrift in the Bay of Bengal Credit: Olivia Harris
Thailand and Malaysia's refusal to accept any more refugees has left about 7,000 boatpeople adrift in the Bay of Bengal Credit: Olivia Harris

Reuters

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