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Rohingya refugees at risk on the high seas

18 May 20151 comment
Photo: Al Jazeera

Photo: Al Jazeera

Thousands of refugees are adrift in boats at sea in what is being described as a humanitarian crisis in the making.

The refusal of Indonesia and Thailand’s military and Malaysia’s navy to allow boatloads of Burmese Rohingyas and Bangladeshis land is precipitating
a regional refugee crisis.

Aid agencies say hundreds of people have already died aboard these vessels with one reporting a 15-year-old boy at sea for a month as the lone
survivor aboard a fishing boat packed with dead refugees.

After more than 1500 refugees came ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia this week both countries have said they will hand over provisions and
push back out to sea any more boats that arrive without permission.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has urged South-east Asian nations to initiate a search and rescue operation for thousands of
Rohingya and Bangladesh migrants and asylum seekers stranded at sea on boats that have crossed the Bay of Bengal from Myanmar and |
Bangladesh in the largest movement of people in the region since the Vietnam War.

Thailand has arranged a summit of regional countries on May 29 to discuss what refugee advocates describe as an escalating crisis.

Malaysia has bluntly told long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar they are not welcome after years of allowing tens of thousands of them to quietly come ashore and live among Malaysians.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar over the past three years where they have suffered state-sponsored persecution and attacks from mobs of Buddhists. Thai authorities have been accused of turning a blind eye and complicity in the lucrative smuggling of Rohingya and Bangladeshi people seeking a new life in Malaysia, Indonesia or other countries.

Over the past three years tens of thousands of Rohingya have languished in squalid camps after attacks on their homes by Buddhist mobs in Myanmar.

The UNHCR says as many as 920 people fleeing Myanmar died while crossing the Bay of Bengal in the six months to March from starvation, dehydration and beatings by boat crews amid a surge of human trafficking across South-east Asia.

Meanwhile new evidence has emerged that people traffickers have established “death camps” in remote jungle areas in Thailand where asylum seekers are held for months.

Two teenagers found last month near the site of a mass grave containing 30 bodies said they had been held in a camp for eight months before its discovery by Thai authorities.

The refugees held captive have reported being beaten and starved by the smugglers who demanded extra money from them.

A total of 53,000 people departed Myanmar and Bangladesh last year in what has become the largest movement of people in the region since the Vietnam War, the UNHCR says.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist