More than 1,000 people fleeing persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh came ashore Friday around Southeast Asia, describing murder, extortion and near-starvation after surviving a harrowing journey at sea.
LANGSA, Indonesia — More than 1,000 people fleeing persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh came ashore Friday around Southeast Asia, describing murder, extortion and near-starvation after surviving a harrowing journey at sea.
An increasingly alarmed United Nations warned against “floating coffins” and urged regional leaders to put human lives first. The United States urged governments not to push back new boat arrivals.
The waves of weak, hungry and dehydrated migrants who arrived Friday were the latest to slip into countries that have made it clear they’re not welcome. But thousands more are still believed stranded at sea in what has become a humanitarian crisis no one in the region is rushing to solve.
Most of the migrants were crammed onto three boats that Indonesian fishermen towed ashore, while a group of 106 people were found on a Thai island known for its world-class scuba diving and brought to the mainland.
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“If I had known that the boat journey would be so horrendous, I would rather have just died in Myanmar,” said Manu Abudul Salam, 19, a Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where three years of attacks against the long-persecuted Muslim minority have sparked the region’s largest exodus of boat people since the Vietnam War.
Manu was aboard the largest boat to come ashore Friday, a wooden vessel crammed with nearly 800 people that was towed to the Indonesian village of Langsa in eastern Aceh province.
The vessel was at sea when authorities around the region began cracking down on human trafficking two weeks ago. Aid groups and rights workers have warned that the crackdown prompted some captains and smugglers to abandon their ships and leave migrants to fend for themselves — a claim that was corroborated by survivors who came ashore Friday.
Manu said she watched the captain on her ship fleeing on a speed boat several days ago after apparently receiving a call on his cellphone. Before he left, he destroyed the boat’s engine, she said, and the boat began to drift.
With food and water running out, tempers flared and fighting broke out, Manu said, sobbing, saying that her 20-year-old brother was among dozens killed in violent clashes between the Bangladeshis and Rohingya on board.
But a wooden fishing boat carrying hundreds of desperate migrants from Myanmar moved farther out to sea Friday after the Thai authorities concluded that the passengers wanted to continue their journey instead of disembarking in Thailand, according to an aid group involved in negotiations over the ship’s fate.
But a Thai reporter who witnessed the boat’s departure said that some of those aboard did not appear to want to leave.
Journalists found the boat adrift in the Andaman Sea on Thursday, its crew gone and its passengers crying for food and water. The vessel, which passengers said had been turned away from Malaysia, is part of a rickety flotilla from Myanmar and Bangladesh believed to be at sea, carrying an exodus of thousands of migrants, many of them Rohingya Muslims, fleeing persecution or economic hardship with no country willing to take them in.
Southeast Asia for years tried to quietly ignore the plight of Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya but is now being confronted with a dilemma that in many ways it helped create. In the past three years, more than 120,000 Rohingya have boarded ships to flee to other countries, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
No countries want them, fearing that accepting a few would result in an unstoppable flow of poor, uneducated migrants. But Southeast Asian governments at the same time respected the wishes of Myanmar at regional gatherings, avoiding discussions of state-sponsored discrimination against the Rohingya.
Myanmar, in its first official comments as the crisis escalated in the past two weeks, indicated it won’t take back migrants who claim to be Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar and are effectively stateless.
Thailand has convened a meeting of senior officials for May 29.
The deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told reporters Friday that Ban Ki-moon plans to speak with regional leaders to urge them to put human lives first in the migrant crisis. “We don’t want them, in other words, to be in floating coffins,” Haq said.
Earlier this week, about 1,600 migrants were rescued by the Malaysian and Indonesian navies, but both countries then sent other boats away. It wasn’t clear whether those who came ashore Friday had been turned away earlier.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) called on regional governments to help and said it was releasing $1 million to help migrants on shore and still stranded at sea. Director General William Lacy Swing said the IOM would assist with longer-term problems like transportation and living arrangements, “but in the name of humanity, let these migrants land.”
As boats arrived in scattered spots of Indonesia and Thailand on Friday, it was increasingly clear that nobody knows how many boats are adrift or where.