Wave of Myanmar and Bangladesh 'boat people' left adrift at sea

Desperate migrants clamored for food and water when they were spotted adrift in the Andaman Sea

Hundreds of desperate migrants clamored for food and water when they were spotted in a wooden fishing boat left adrift in the Andaman Sea between Malaysia and Thailand.

Smugglers had disabled the engine and abandoned them six days ago, they told the boatload of journalists who found them Thursday, and no country had been willing to take them in.

Video of the emaciated men, women and children -- some of them in tears as they reached out to grab bottles of water tossed from the journalists’ vessel -- brought into stark relief the crisis that has been unfolding in southeast Asian waters.

The International Organization for Migration estimated that 6,000 people from Myanmar and Bangladesh were stranded in at least six boats off Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia as of Thursday. Most were Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country where they are not recognized as citizens and have suffered waves of sectarian violence.

Humanitarian officials fear that the stranded migrants won’t survive much longer if they run out of food and water. Deaths have been reported aboard some of the vessels, including 10 on the boat found Thursday. Their bodies were thrown overboard, the passengers told the BBC.

Human traffickers have long plied these waters. Until recently, they would take their passengers to Thailand and hold them in jungle camps until their families paid hefty fees for their travel on to Malaysia, according to Human Rights Watch. But when a government raid uncovered 26 bodies at one of the camps this month, it spurred a crackdown that in effect closed the smuggling route through Thailand.

Since then, traffickers have been trying to offload their human cargo in Malaysia or Indonesia, or abandoning them at sea, the New York-based group said Thursday.

Boats carrying about 1,600 migrants landed in Indonesia’s northern Aceh province and the Malaysian resort island of Langkawithe over the weekend. But neither country appears willing to take in more illegal migrants and asylum seekers.

“What do you expect us to do?” Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar said, according to the Associated Press. “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.”

The boat found Thursday, which was carrying about 350 people, had been at sea for about three months, passengers said. Thai fishing boats found it Wednesday night and towed it into Malaysian waters, the BBC reported. It was then towed back to Thai waters.

The Thai navy dispatched a ship to the scene Thursday, telling reporters that the migrants would be provided food, water and medical care before they were sent on their way.

“The Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human pingpong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

He blamed the government in Myanmar for creating the crisis, but said,  “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.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was also alarmed by the reports that countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants, according to a statement issued by his office Thursday. Ban urged governments to “facilitate timely disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need,” the statement said.

Officials in Thailand say they cannot afford to take in all the migrants and have called for a regional conference to discuss the problem.

For more international news, follow @alexzavis on Twitter

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times