BANGKOK – The Royal Thai Navy airdropped food and water to hundreds of desperate Rohingya migrants stranded on a stricken boat off southern Thailand — then fixed the vessel’s engine so it could continue on to Malaysian waters.
In the latest developments in the crisis engulfing Southeast Asia, hungry migrants were filmed jumping from the boat into the water early Friday to recover the provisions dropped from a Thai military helicopter.
Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it had dispatched medical teams in response to a request from the Indonesian government after two more vessels containing hundreds of Rohingya migrants made landfall in Aceh.
The larger vessel had about 700 people aboard, including many women and children, and the smaller one about 50, according to Jeff Labovitz, Bangkok-based spokesman for the IOM. Ten people on board the larger vessel were in critical condition with severe malnutrition and dehydration, but were expected to survive, he said.
The boat in Thai waters, carrying about 300 Rohingya men, women and children, was found floating with a broken engine near the southern Thai island of Lipe, having been abandoned by its captain but with two crew onboard, said the governor of Thailand’s Satun Province, Dejrat Simsiri.
The boat then set out on a southwest course and re-entered Malaysian waters, after rejecting an offer from Thai authorities to allow the passengers to come ashore in Thailand, according to Thai government spokesman Colonel Weerachon Sukhontapitak and an international body.
Thailand’s deputy government spokesman Major General Sansern Kaewkumnerd said Thai naval officers who inspected the vessels were told the boat intended to continue to a “third country.”
“The Thais agreed to allow them to disembark, they said no,” said Jeff Labovitz, Bangkok-based spokesman for the International Organization Migration (IOM), which is monitoring the unfolding crisis on Southeast Asian waters.
“That’s really important — the Thais did the right thing here.”
Asked why those on board would have turned down the offer to leave the vessel, he said: “I have to assume they don’t really understand what’s going on.”
Malaysia was the migrants’ desired destination, he said, and it was also possible that trafficking brokers on board, concerned about avoiding Thai authorities, were calling the shots.
“Thailand is cracking down — if you’re a broker you’re going to be interviewed and detained,” he said.
As a consequence, he said, the “game of ping pong” involving the vessel and other migrant boats was set to continue. Earlier in the week, he said, Malaysian authorities had given the same boat food and water, before turning it around.
Thousands of migrants — mostly members of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority, and also economic migrants from Bangladesh — are believed to be stranded aboard rickety traffickers’ ships in the busy waters of the Malacca Strait and the Andaman Sea, looking for a safe harbor to take them in.
Rights groups have called on regional governments to mount urgent search and rescue missions to save the imperiled migrants aboard the boats, many of which they say have been abandoned by their captains.
But despite the calls, officials from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia say they have instead refueled and restocked migrant vessels and sent them on their way — with claims boats are refusing offers to come ashore.
A top Malaysian official told CNN Thursday the surge of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh was unwelcome, and his government would turn back any illegal arrivals.
“We cannot welcome them here,” Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jaafar said.
“If we continue to welcome them, then hundreds of thousands will come from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
“If the boat is still good and can sail back, we give them food, and drink and fuel and send them back.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak issued a statement Friday saying he was “very concerned with the plight of migrants in our region” and would “not tolerate any form of human trafficking.”
“This is an issue of international and regional importance,” read the statement.
“We are in contact with all relevant parties, with whom we share the desire to find a solution to this crisis.”
Arrmanatha Nasir, a spokesman for the Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters Wednesday that an Indonesian ship had given provisions to a migrant boat it encountered on patrol in the Strait of Malacca before the boat carried on its way to Malaysia — which he said was its intended destination.
“The people on the boat did not want to go to Indonesia, but they asked for help, clean water and food,” he said. “After the aid was given, they parted.”
Indonesia was providing food and shelter to 582 migrants rescued from boats off the coast of Aceh Sunday, and was working with international bodies to provide them with documentation and temporary relocation, he said.
IOM spokesman Labovitz said about 80 Rohingya migrants also came ashore on Indonesian fishing boats Friday, near Camat Pangkalan Susu, Sumatra.
More than 1,700 migrants — both Rohingya and economic migrants from Bangladesh — have landed in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand since Sunday, officials say, after Thai officials began cracking down on human trafficking camps operating in the country’s south near the Malaysian border, disrupting established people smuggling networks.
The crackdown followed the discovery of dozens of bodies in trafficking camps in the jungle.
With the Thai pipeline for illegal migrants closed, overcrowded traffickers’ boats have begun offloading their human cargo on the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia — Muslim-majority countries that have shown sympathy for the Rohingya in the past.
Alternatively, crews have simply abandoned them to drift.
“It’s harrowing to think that hundreds of people are right now drifting in a boat perilously close to dying, without food or water, and without even knowing where they are,” said Kate Schuetze, Asia Pacific researcher for rights group Amnesty International.
Malaysia is processing more than 1,000 recently arrived migrants, with the aim of sending them home, said Wan Junaidi Jaafar.
He said the 1,058 new arrivals on Langkawi Island had been transferred to another state, and were in the process of being repatriated.
Malaysian state media Bernama reported Wednesday that residents of Langkawi were expressing concerns about security following the mass arrivals, and quoted some as saying they believed there were migrants still hiding in the jungle.
“We have seen bite marks on the fruits of the trees that we have planted, and even heard children crying at night in the jungle,” one man said.
A Thai official told CNN Friday that about 100 Rohingya who had arrived on the southern island of Surin Thursday had been transferred to the mainland where they were being subjected to immigration processes.
In a statement Thursday, Human Rights Watch urgently called on Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to end their “pushbacks” of migrant boats and “instead bring them ashore and provide desperately needed aid.”
“The Burmese government has created this crisis with their continued persecution of the Rohingya,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have made things much worse with cold-hearted policies to push back this new wave of ‘boat people’ that puts thousands of lives at risk.”
Rohingya have been fleeing Myanmar, also know as Burma, in the tens of thousands, in the wake of an outbreak of communal violence in 2012 and what’s been described as the ethnic cleansing of the minority.
Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country, considers the Rohingya to be interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh, despite the fact that many have lived there for generations.
Denied citizenship, they live under apartheid-like conditions, with 140,000 in Rakhine State forced to live into crowded camps which they are generally forbidden to leave.
As a result, many have been attempting to leave by sea. A report by UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, said that about 25,000 people had fled Rakhine State and Bangladesh by sea in the first quarter of 2015, with an estimated 300 dying in the process. – CNN