By Nurdin Hasan
More than 750 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on Friday, police said, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia’s human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit.
Indonesian police said passengers aboard one vessel carrying 712 people recounted how their boat sank off the east coast of the huge island of Sumatra after earlier being driven away by Malaysia.
Activists estimate up to 8,000 migrants are at sea in Southeast Asia.
But the decision by Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to turn away stricken boats filled with starving Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar has been met with outrage, including from the US and UN.
“According to initial information we got from them they were pushed away by the Malaysian navy to the border of Indonesian waters,” said Sunarya, police chief in the city of Langsa in Aceh province, where the migrants arrived.
The boat, whose passengers included 61 children, was sinking but Indonesian fishermen ferried them to shore, he said.
Forty-seven more people from another vessel were rescued not far down the coast after the hungry passengers leapt into the water pleading with local fishing boats to help them.
Nearly 1,300 migrants are already sheltering in Aceh after managing to get ashore in recent days.
Earlier Friday, another boat carrying about 300 Rohingya — a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar — left Thailand’s waters, a Thai official said, after authorities repaired its engine and provided some food.
The boat’s passengers included many children and women who wept as they begged for food and water, after arriving near the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe on Thursday.
They told a boatload of journalists of a grim two-month odyssey in which 10 passengers had died of starvation or illness and were tossed overboard.
“We haven’t had anything to eat for a week, there is nowhere to sleep… my children are sick,” said Sajida, 27, a Rohingya who was travelling with her four young children.
US demands: ‘Save lives’
Their boat had been trying to reach Malaysia but provincial governor Dejrat Limsiri of the Thai province of Satun told AFP it would now head for Indonesia.
“We gave them ready-to-eat meals. They are now out of Thailand territory… they will try to go to Indonesia as it seems they cannot get to Malaysia,” he said Friday.
Human Rights Watch has called the situation a deadly game of “human ping pong”.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Southeast Asia to “keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need”.
He also reminded authorities they were obliged to rescue stricken boats and to respect an international ban on expelling prospective refugees.
The US State Department demanded that Southeast Asian countries “save lives at sea”.
Spokesman Jeff Rathke said US ambassadors in the region were coordinating with UN agencies and governments on ways to help.
Many of the migrants are now feared to be stranded at sea after a Thai police crackdown threw busy people-smuggling routes into chaos.
Thailand has announced a regional meeting on the crisis for May 29. But Myanmar — which refuses citizenship to its Rohingya minority — indicated it would stay away.
“We are unlikely to attend… we do not accept it if they (Thailand) are inviting us just to ease the pressure they are facing,” presidential office director Zaw Htay told AFP.
Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar on Thursday blamed Myanmar and Bangladesh for the crisis, chastising Yangon in particular for “the way they treat the Rohingya people”.
The Bangladeshis are thought mainly to be economic migrants escaping their country’s grinding poverty.
But the Muslim Rohingya flee by the thousands each year to escape state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and recent sectarian violence against them.
There are more than a million Rohingya living in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, many going back generations, but Myanmar insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Malaysian PM ‘very concerned with plight of migrants’
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Friday he was “very concerned with the plight of migrants” flooding to Southeast Asian shores, saying there was a shared desire in the region for a solution.
“I am very concerned with the plight of migrants in our region, some of whom have already reached our shores and still others who are trying,” he said in a statement.
“We are in contact with all relevant parties, with whom we share the desire to find a solution to this crisis,” he added, without elaborating.
The issue was one of “international and regional importance,” Najib said.
Hundreds of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh have sought this week to reach Southeast Asia, and activists estimate up to 8,000 more may be at sea and at risk of dying of starvation.
But the decision of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to turn away stricken boats filled with starving migrants has been met with outrage, including from the US and UN.
Najib did not give any indication of a change in Malaysian policy, but said his government was taking “necessary action”.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Security Council are taking the necessary actions to deal with this humanitarian crisis,” he said.
He did not elaborate.