Several hundred people from Myanmar, crying for water, were thought to be aboard a fishing boat that was turned away by Malaysia on Thursday. The recent influx of such migrants seeking shelter has created a crisis across the region.
IN THE ANDAMAN SEA OFF THAILAND — A wooden fishing boat carrying several hundred desperate migrants from Myanmar was spotted adrift in the Andaman Sea between Thailand and Malaysia on Thursday, part of an exodus in which thousands of people have taken to the sea in recent weeks but no country has been willing to take them in.
Cries of “Please help us! I have no water!” rose from the boat as a vessel carrying journalists approached. “Please give me water!”
The green-and-red fishing boat, packed with men, women and children squatting on the deck with only plastic tarps to protect them from the sun, had been turned away by the Malaysian authorities Wednesday, passengers said.
They said that they had been on the boat for three months and that the boat’s captain and crew had abandoned them days ago. Ten passengers had died during the voyage and their bodies were thrown overboard, the passengers said.
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It was unclear Thursday whether they would receive help, despite the presence of a Thai navy vessel, which arrived after being alerted to the boat’s presence.
The estimated 6,000 to 20,000 migrants at sea who are fleeing ethnic persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh have created a crisis across the region, with countries pointing fingers at one another and declining to take responsibility.
Most of the migrants were thought to be headed to Malaysia, but after more than 1,500 came ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia in the past week, both countries declared their intention to turn away any more boats carrying migrants.
Thai officials have not articulated an official policy since the crisis began, beyond convening a regional conference to discuss the problem this month. Thailand is not known to have allowed any of the migrants to land there.
The Indonesian navy turned back a boat with thousands of passengers Tuesday, urging it on to Malaysia, while the Malaysian authorities forced two boats back out to sea with a total of at least 800 passengers Wednesday.
The Thai naval vessel that approached the migrant ship here Thursday kept its distance, said its commander, Lt. Cmdr. Veerapong Nakprasit, adding that the migrants had “entered illegally.” At one point Thai sailors tossed packages of instant noodles to the boat, although the migrants appeared to have no means to cook them.
“It’s maritime Ping-Pong with human life,” said Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Bangkok. “What’s the endgame? I don’t want to be too overdramatic, but if these people aren’t treated and brought to shore soon we are going to have a boat full of corpses.”
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has asked regional governments to conduct search-and-rescue operations, to no avail. “It’s a potential humanitarian disaster,” said Jeffrey Savage, a senior protection officer with the agency.
Many of the migrants are believed to have been abandoned by traffickers, with little food or water.
Indonesia’s chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Fuad Basya, said Thursday that the military would “push back any boat that wants to enter Indonesian waters without permission, including those of boat people like the Rohingya.”
Tens of thousands of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim ethnic group, have fled Myanmar over the last several years, most going to Malaysia or Bangladesh. But the exodus over the last few weeks seemed to have caught everyone by surprise.
The fact that so many are at sea at once, however, may be in part an unintended consequence of the Thai crackdown on human trafficking. After the discovery of a mass grave this month believed to contain the bodies of 33 Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants, officials raided several smuggling camps in southern Thailand and charged dozens of police officers and senior officials with being complicit in the trade.
The camps were a way station where migrants were often detained in prisonlike conditions until they or their families could pay the smugglers for passage to Malaysia. As horrid as those camps were, without them, the migrants have been stuck at sea, their traffickers afraid to set foot in Thailand.
“Their business model has been interrupted by the operations in Thailand,” said Lowry, the IOM spokesman. “They will be back eventually — smuggling in trafficking is very lucrative — but they are waiting for now.”
Migrants generally pay about $1,800 each for passage to Malaysia, along with the promise of a job when they arrive, said Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, a human-rights group that tracks migration in the Andaman Sea.
But they are frequently shaken down for more payments along the way and many never make it to Malaysia, a Muslim country that until recently had tacitly allowed the backdoor migration of Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladesh.