Thousands of Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar remain stranded on boats off the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. However, governments in the area show little interest in rescuing them.
Human rights workers have talked by phone with a Thai-registered boat. The boat is believed to be in the waters of Thailand or Malaysia. They say 350 migrants are on board. Fifty women and 84 children are among those on the Thai boat. Those on the boat have made many requests for help. They say they are entering a fourth day without food or fresh water.
One young person on the boat told rights workers that 40 people on board have died, including 13 people on Tuesday. However, officials cannot confirm the information.
Chris Lewa is the founder of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights group. Mr. Lewa has talked on the phone many times with those on board the boat.
“We do not know where they are. So now the main thing is to identify where they could be, of course, on the Thai side or Malaysia side,” Mr. Lewa told VOA Wednesday.
He said cell phone contact had been made with another boat in a similar situation. Its location is also not known. “There are most likely many more [boats] in the same situation, abandoned. There should be an organized regional search-and-rescue operation taking place.”
Many of the migrants on board are trying to get to Malaysia. However, Malaysia has refused calls to rescue the boats carrying immigrants. Malaysian officials said Tuesday if they find these boats, they would give food and other supplies to those on board. And if the boats were still seaworthy, they would turn them away. The Thai and Indonesian navies have similar plans in place.
The United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday it is “extremely alarmed” at reports saying Indonesia and Malaysia have pushed back boats carrying migrants. Volker Turk, a UN refugee agency official, said avoiding responsibility for the migrants puts lives at risk.
“The first priority is to save lives. Instead of competing to avoid responsibility, it is key for states to share the responsibility to disembark these people immediately,” Mr. Turk said.
Thailand’s effort to contain human smuggling
Smugglers have used rubber factories in the southern part of Thailand as a way to enter Malaysia by land. The discovery of human remains this month led Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to order that the smuggling network be shut down.
The prime minister told reporters Tuesday that the military-led Thai government is considering opening refugee camps for Rohingya. He also said his main goal is “to take care of the Thai people. “But human rights cannot be denied either.”
The smuggling network, mostly for ethnic Muslim Rohingya, has existed for many years. Rohingya minorities are fleeing violence and discrimination in Myanmar. But the recent Thai crackdown has affected the network’s operation.
Thai border police also told VOA on Wednesday they had discovered another large camp used by human smugglers near the Malaysian border. Smugglers used the camp to detain Rohingya migrants.
The Freeland Foundation says the human smuggling network in Thailand was a “multi-million dollar operation.” The migrants would need up to $3,000 from family and friends in Thailand to receive their freedom. Or they would be moved to the Malaysian border, where they were sold to Malaysian farmers for $1,000 each.
With many of these camps now closed, observers say that between 8,000 and 10,000 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh may now be at sea on overcrowded wooden boats.
Despite all of the risks, thousands of poor Bangladeshis and repressed Rohingya continue to want to migrate.
In the first three months of 2015, some 25,000 people are believed to have taken boats from Bangladesh and Myanmar. That is two times the number in the same period last year.
Thailand is planning an international conference on the situation in Bangkok on May 29. Thai officials say 15 affected countries plan to attend.
I’m Jonathan Evans.
VOA correspondent Steve Herman reported this story from Bangkok. Ashley Thompson adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
stranded – v. : to leave (a person or animal) in a place without a way of leaving it — usually used as (be) stranded
location – n. a place or position
seaworthy – adj. fit or safe to travel on the sea
smuggle – v. to move (someone or something) from one country into another illegally and secretly
network – n. a group of people or organizations that are closely connected and that work with each other
crackdown – n. a serious attempt to punish people for doing something that is not allowed : an increased effort to enforce a law or rule