Migrant Crisis Hits Shores of Malaysia, Indonesia

Rohingya migrants sit in a sports facility in Lhoksukon, Indonesia, May 11, 2015. [BenarNews]

By BenarNews Staff

Nearly 1,600 illegal migrants have come ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia in the past two days, and thousands more may still be at sea after Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking.

Malaysian authorities early Monday arrested 1,018 people on Langkawi, an island off the northwestern coast of Malaysia, a day after fishermen in Indonesia’s Aceh province rescued another 573.

Two other boats evaded capture, Malaysian officials said. Meanwhile, the Indonesian Navy on Monday intercepted another boat full of migrants and sent it toward Malaysia, the Associated Press reported.

Before turning the boat away, sailors provided water and food to the migrants, AP quoted Navy spokesman First Adm. Manahan Simorangkir as saying.

"Because their destination country was not Indonesia, we asked them to continue to the country where they actually want to go," he said.

The surge in illegal sea journeys in the Andaman Sea and Strait of Malacca comes amid a Thai governmental crackdown against human trafficking that followed the discovery earlier this month of the bodies of 32 migrants in southern Songkhla province.

The migrants are a combination of ethnic Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority fleeing persecution in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, and Bangladeshis.

"Yes, our crackdown is affecting the boats," police spokesman Lt. Gen. Prawut Thawornsiri told Reuters in Bangkok. "They are going to Indonesia. Why else would they go to Indonesia? It is so far ... Our job is to block the boats and not let them land on our shores."

41 children

After the arrests on Langkawi officials in Malaysia said they were on the lookout for a huge influx of illegal migrants, the state-run Bernama news agency reported.

“We are exercising caution because we have information that more illegal immigrants may try to land in Langkawi,” local police chief Harrith Kam Abdullah told reporters.

According to him, 555 of the detained migrants were from Bangladesh and 463 were ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar.

In Aceh, migrants told rescuers that a total of three large boats bound for Malaysia had left Thailand about five days earlier.

Fishermen found one of them in the Strait of Malacca before dawn Sunday and towed it to land, according to Darsa, an official with the Regional Disaster Management Agency of North Aceh.

Darsa said he helped remove migrants from the boat, some of whom spoke Malay.

“Those people told me that in their country they are beaten and tortured by security forces. Some are doused with hot water. Some of their relatives were shot dead after being tortured,” he said.

Among those rescued were 83 women and 41 children under the age of 12. Four of the women were pregnant.

“Some of them were very weak when they were evacuated, and are receiving medical treatment,” he said.

Abandoned at sea

Muhammad Juned, 35, an ethnic Rohingya who came ashore in Aceh, said he had left Myanmar about a month ago, part of a group that embarked on 10 small boats and spent time in Thailand.

While in Thailand, an agent put them aboard three boats for their onward journey to Malaysia.

“Once we arrived at the boundary waters between Malaysia and Indonesia, the travel agency that brought us, including the captain of the ship, fled in a speedboat. We couldn’t do anything about it because they had guns,” he said.

Jahangir Hossin, 37, gave a similar account.

“We floated four days on the sea, four days without food. We could only drink,” he told local reporters.

Mutaris, a 26-year-old man from Bangladesh, said he sailed from his homeland about two months ago with dozens of other migrants.

“On the trip, some of my friends died from hunger. We had to throw their corpses in the sea,” he said.

The 1,018 boat people were being housed temporarily in a sports facility in Lhohsukon, the capital of North Aceh Regency, according to its police chief.

Casting blame

Myanmar, ostensibly the source of the refugee crisis gripping the region, on Monday pointed a finger at Bangladesh.

“From a humanitarian perspective, the help given by the Malaysians and Indonesians is very good ... but the issue is whether these people – who say they are from Myanmar – really come from Myanmar," Zaw Htay, director of the president’s office in Myanmar, told Agence France-Presse.

"The root of this problem is Bangladesh. Bangladesh carries the major responsibility for this," he said.

For its part, Bangladesh said it had stepped up action against human traffickers, arresting three suspects from the Teknaf district bordering Myanmar. Four other suspected human traffickers were shot dead in Bangladesh since Friday.

“These kind of incidents are sullying Bangladesh’s image overseas and we’ve taken some steps in recent days to curb human trafficking,” Khandker Iftekar Haider Chowdhury, secretary of the Expatriates Welfare Ministry, told BenarNews.

In Thailand, police held a news conference to announce the arrest of 17 out of 50 suspects in connection with the trafficking of Rohingya and Bangladeshis.

These included “key suspect” Suwan Saengthong, the owner of a fishing establishment in Ranong Province, which borders Myanmar.

Malaysia’s Home Ministry, meanwhile, announced that an investigation by the Royal Malaysia Police had uncovered no trafficking camps or graves on the Malaysian side of the border.

Crisis meetings

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), foreign governments and international organizations have held emergency meetings to address the crisis in southern Asia, AP reported.

One of the problems was determining what to do with the Rohingya if a rescue was launched, participants said on condition they not be named.

"At this point, I'm not sure what the concrete next steps are or should be," said Vivian Tan, the UNHCR's regional press officer in Bangkok, Thailand. "There is a real sense of urgency, but there doesn't seem to be a clear mechanism in this region for responding to something like this."

A Rohingya activist said many migrants had likely fled deeper into hiding as a result of the crackdown in Thailand.

“They are afraid of the police because the brokers told them that if they see the police just escape,” Nu Islam Ameen of the Association of Muslim Rohingyas in Thailand told BenarNews.

“Most of the migrants that came out for help were weary and sick. Where are those who are still strong?”

Nurdin Hasan in Aceh, Hata Wahari in Kuala Lumpur, Jesmin Papri in Dhaka, and Nasueroh in southern Thailand contributed to this report.