Burma migrant boat part of new exodus in region
Indonesia and Malaysia fail to take in vessel carrying hundreds of Rohingya Muslims
A boat carrying hundreds of Rohingya migrants from Burma drifting in Thai waters in the Andaman Sea. Photograph: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images
A wooden fishing boat carrying several hundred migrants from Burma (Myanmar) was spotted adrift in the Andaman Sea yesterday, 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 tarps strung up to protect them from the sun, was turned away by the Malaysian authorities on Wednesday, the passengers said.
Four hundred migrants were aboard the boat, they said, which was north of the Malaysian island of Langkawi and west of the Thai mainland. At least 160 people were visible above deck.
Women and children wailed as the boat with journalists approached. “Myanmar refugees! Myanmar refugees!” a man, who gave his name as Selim, yelled to a reporter.
The passengers said they had been on the boat for three months; 10 of them had died during the voyage, their bodies thrown overboard.
The boat’s captain and five crew members had abandoned them six days ago, they said.
“I am very hungry,” said Mohamed Siraj, a 15-year-old boy from western Burma. “Quickly help us please.”
Their presence has created a crisis in southeast Asia. Most were thought to be headed to Malaysia, but after more than 1,500 migrants 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, but Thailand is not known to have allowed any of the migrants to land there.
Yesterday afternoon, a Thai navy speedboat arrived near the migrant boat in the Andaman Sea. The navy vessel stayed about 100 yards away from the migrant boat, and Thai sailors appeared to be observing it, but they did not board it or send it away.
At one point they tossed packages of instant noodles to the boat, but it was not clear that the migrants had any means to cook them.
“We want to watch them from afar,” said Lt Cmdr Veerapong Nakprasit, who was on the navy boat. “We will help them fix their engine. Their intention is to go to Malaysia. They have entered illegally.”
Chris Lewa, the coordinator of the Arakan Project, which monitors trafficking in the Andaman Sea, had been in sporadic contact with the boat for the past several days. The passengers, who shared one mobile phone, told her they had no water or food and requested help.
Ms Lewa said families of the passengers told her the boat left waters off Burma on about March 1st. The passengers paid or agreed to pay to be taken to Malaysia, she said.
Other vessels linked to the traffickers had delivered food and water to the boat during the journey until the crew abandoned it.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, meanwhile, has asked regional governments to conduct search and rescue operations. “It’s a potential humanitarian disaster,” said Jeffrey Savage, a senior protection officer with the agency.
The boat flew a tattered black flag on a makeshift bamboo mast with the words, “We are Myanmar Rohingya.”
The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group that has faced violent attacks by radical Buddhists in Burma and official discrimination by the government.
A spokesman yesterday said Indonesia’s military would “push back any boat that wants to enter Indonesian waters without permission, including those of boat people ”.
Malaysia also turned away a boat with about 500 people on board that arrived on Wednesday off the coast of Penang.
“What do you expect us to do?” asked deputy home minister Wan Junaidi. “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.”
For the Rohingya, an accumulation of setbacks have taken their toll, Ms Lewa said. The tightening of fishing permits has hit the Rohingya monetarily and nutritionally and the government insists its one million Rohingya residents are not citizens.
“It’s a combination of things. Their lives have become worse and worse.”
The fact that so many are at sea at once, however, may be in part an unintended consequence of the Thai crackdown on trafficking.
After the discovery of a mass grave this month believed to contain the bodies of 33 Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants, officials raided smuggling camps in southern Thailand and charged dozens of police officers and officials with being complicit in the trade. – (New York Times service)
Rohingya crisis How Burma and its neighbours are responding