LANGKAWI – Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis abandoned at sea by human traffickers have nowhere to go after Malaysia turned away two boats crammed with more than 800 migrants, and Thailand kept at bay a third boat with hundreds more.
“What do you expect us to do?” Malaysian deputy home minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar said. “We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely but they cannot be flooding our shores like this.”
“We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here,” he said, just days after about 1,000 refugees landed on the shores of Langkawi, a popular resort island in northern Malaysia near Thailand. Another 600 have arrived surreptitiously in Indonesia.
The Thai prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, said his government did not have resources to host refugees.
“If we take them all in, then anyone who wants to come will come freely. I am asking if Thailand will be able to take care of them all. Where will the budget come from?” Prayuth said. “No one wants them. Everyone wants a transit country like us to take responsibility. Is it fair?”
South-east Asia, which for years tried to quietly ignore the plight of Burma’s 1.3 million Rohingya, finds itself caught in a spiralling humanitarian crisis. In the last three years, more than 120,000 members of the Muslim minority, who are intensely persecuted in Buddhist-majority Burma, have boarded ships to flee to other countries, paying huge sums of money to human traffickers.
But faced with a crackdown by security forces of various countries, the smugglers have been abandoning the ships, leaving an estimated 6,000 refugees to fend for themselves, according to reliable aid workers and human rights groups.
“This is a grave humanitarian crisis demanding an immediate response,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of nonprofit human rights group Fortify Rights. “Lives are on the line.”
Despite appeals by the UN and international aid agencies, no government in the region – neither the Thai, Indonesian nor Malaysian – appears willing to take them in, fearing that accepting a few would result in an unstoppable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.
Wan Junaidi said about 500 people on board a boat found on Wednesday off the coast of northern Penang state were given provisions and then sent on their way. Another boat carrying about 300 migrants was turned away near Langkawi island overnight, according to two Malaysian officials.
Meanwhile, Thai authorities also spotted a boat with migrants on the sea border between Thailand and Malaysia.
They had been given food and water, Captain Chayut Navespootikorn, a senior naval official, said.
“To bring them into our country is not our policy,” he said. “If they need fuel or food to go on to a third country we would help them with it.”
Malaysia, which is not a signatory to international conventions on refugees, is host to more than 150,000 refugees and people seeking asylum, the majority from Burma. More than 45,000 of them are Rohingya, according to the UN refugee agency.
But because they have no legal status, job opportunities are limited. They also have little or no access to basic services such as education and healthcare, and are vulnerable to arrests and deportation. A small number are resettled in third countries.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch Asia accused Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia of playing “a three-way game of human ping pong”. At the same time, the three countries and others in south-east Asia have for years bowed to the wishes of Burma at regional conferences, avoiding all discussions of state-sponsored discrimination against the Rohingya.
Denied citizenship by national law, members of the Rohingya minority are effectively stateless. They have limited access to education or adequate healthcare and cannot move around freely. They have been attacked by the military and chased from their homes and land by extremist Buddhist mobs.
Wan Junaidi said it was time to put pressure on Burma, a former pariah state, to address the Rohingya crisis.
“You talk about democracy, but don’t treat your citizens like trash, like criminals until they need to run away to our country,” he said.
Increasingly over the years, Rohingya boarding boats in the Bay of Bengal have been joined by people from neighboring Bangladesh, most of them seeking an escape from poverty.
For those fleeing, the first stop until recently was Thailand, where migrants were held in jungle camps until their families could raise hefty ransoms so they could continue onward. Recent security crackdowns forced the smugglers to change tactics, instead holding people on large ships parked offshore.
Initially they were shuttled to shore in groups on smaller boats after their “ransoms” were paid. But as agents and brokers on land got spooked by arrests – not just of traffickers but also police and politicians – they went into hiding.
That created a bottleneck, with migrants stuck on boats for days and weeks.