Photos by Binsar Bakkara
More than 1,000 people fleeing persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh came ashore in different parts of Southeast Asia on Friday, becoming the latest migrants to slip into countries that have made it clear they are not welcome.
Weak, hungry and dehydrated, most of the migrants were crammed onto three boats that Indonesian fisherman towed ashore, while another 106 people were found on a Thai island Thursday and brought to the mainland, authorities said.
Myanmar, in its first official comments as the crisis escalated in the past two weeks, indicated it won’t take back migrants who claim to be Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority who are denied citizenship in Myanmar and are effectively stateless.
“We cannot say that the migrants are from Myanmar unless we can identify them,” said government spokesman Ye Htut. “Most victims of human trafficking claim they are from Myanmar is it is very easy and convenient for them.”
Another official, Maj. Zaw Htay, said that Myanmar “will not attend a regional meeting hosted by Thailand if ‘Rohingya’ is mentioned on the invitation.” Even the name is taboo in Myanmar, which calls them Bengalis and insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though Rohingya have lived in the majority-Buddhist country for generations.
Thailand has convened a meeting of senior officials for May 29, but the Myanmar officials’ comments show the difficulty in resolving what has become a spiraling humanitarian crisis.
Southeast Asia for years tried to quietly ignore the plight of Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya but is now being confronted with a dilemma that in many ways it helped create. In the last three years, more than 120,000 Rohingya have boarded ships to flee to other countries, paying huge sums to human traffickers.
But following arrests and other moves in a growing regional crackdown, some captains and smugglers have abandoned the ships, leaving migrants to fend for themselves, according to aid workers and human rights groups.
Most are believed to be heading to Malaysia, a Muslim country that has hosted more than 45,000 Rohingya over the years but now says it can’t accept any more. Indonesia and Thailand have voiced similar stances.
Earlier this week, about 1,600 migrants were rescued by the Malaysian and Indonesian navies, but both countries then sent other boats away. It wasn’t clear whether those who came ashore Friday had been turned away earlier.
As boats arrived in scattered spots of Southeast Asia on Friday, it was increasingly clear that nobody knows how many boats are adrift or where.
One boat found Friday off Indonesia’s Aceh province had 790 people, including 61 children and 61 women, many weak from lack of food and water, said Lt. Col. Sunarya, who uses only one name. Fishermen spotted the boat on the verge of sinking and towed it to the village of Langsa.
“Some of the people told police they were abandoned at sea for days and Malaysian authorities had already turned their boat away,” said Sunarya, a Langsa police chief who said the migrants came from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
About 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Langsa, fishermen rescued a smaller boat carrying 47 Rohingya, also dehydrated and hungry, said police chief Dicky Sandoni, from Aceh’s Tamiang district.
In neighboring North Sumatra province, fishermen rescued a third boat with 96 weak and hungry people adrift in a motorless boat, said Capt. Suroso of the Langkat district police. They were provided basic shelter and food, he said.
Separately, the Thai navy found 106 people, mostly men but including 15 women and two children, on a small island Thursday off the coast of Phang Nga province, an area known as the Surin Islands and famous for its world-class scuba diving.
“It’s not clear how they ended up on the island,” said Prayoon Rattanasenee, the Phang Nga provincial governor. The group said they were Rohingya from Myanmar. “We are in the process of identifying if they were victims of human trafficking.” They were brought to a police immigration facility in southern Phang Nga.
Myanmar’s Rohingya have limited access to education and health care and cannot move around freely. They have been attacked by the military and chased from their homes and land by extremist Buddhist mobs.
Neighboring countries fear that accepting a few Rohingya would result in an unstoppable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “alarmed by reports that some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants,” according to a statement from his office Thursday. Ban urged governments in the region to “facilitate timely disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need.”
Text from the AP news story, 1,000 migrants land in Indonesia, Thailand in growing crisis, by Niniek Karmini and Thanyarat Doksone.
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