UN Alarmed at Southeast Asian Actions Toward Migrant Boats

Illegal Bangladeshi migrants wait at police headquarters in Langkawi, Malaysia, after landing on local shores, May 11, 2015.{AFP]

By BenarNews Staff

The United Nations on Wednesday led international calls to Southeast Asian countries not to push back boats transporting illegal migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, following warnings from governments in the region that they would prevent more vessels from landing.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it was “extremely alarmed at reports suggesting that Indonesia and Malaysia may have pushed back boats carrying vulnerable people from Myanmar and Bangladesh.”

"The first priority is to save lives," UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk said in a statement issued by the Geneva-based agency.

“Instead of competing to avoid responsibility, it is key for states to share the responsibility to disembark these people immediately.”

UNHCR a day earlier had appealed to Southeast Asian governments to keep their borders open and step up maritime rescue efforts amid ongoing reports that “thousands of people” were stranded on smugglers’ boats between the Andaman Sea and Strait of Malacca.

More than 1,700 migrants believed to be Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi citizens have made it to shore since Sunday in Indonesia and Malaysia, where authorities have detained them.

On Monday, the Indonesian navy reportedly intercepted a boat carrying 600 migrants and sent it toward Malaysia after supplying the passengers with food and water, according to reports.

And on Wednesday, a boat carrying 500 more migrants was spotted off the Malaysian coast near Penang, but it was unclear whether authorities were allowing the vessel to land.

The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) had said Tuesday that it would turn away other migrants’ boats after 1,158 migrants landed on Langkawi island. A local NGO, Lawyers for Liberty, condemned the policy.

"These boats carrying overcrowded refugees and migrants are typically rickety, wooden trawlers and hardly seaworthy,” said Eric Paulsen, the group’s director.

"Turning or towing these boats away is as good as signing their death warrant as the occupants are normally starving, dehydrated, sickly and in dire need of immediate assistance," he added.

‘A regional challenge’

According to the Reuters news agency, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia did not respond Wednesday to UNHCR’s earlier call to rescue more migrants.

"Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have decided not to receive boat people, as far as I am aware," Reuters quoted Thai junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Werachon Sukhondhapatipak as saying.

He declined to respond to the U.N.’s call on Tuesday as did officials at the Malaysian home ministry, Reuters reported.

In Indonesia, a foreign ministry spokesman denied that the country was implementing a “push back” policy, as he responded to questions about the migrant boat that had been intercepted by the Indonesian navy two days earlier, according to the Associated Press.

“We have to help refugees who need assistance and direct them to where they want to go,” AP quoted Arrmantha Nasir as saying. “It goes against our principle to chase away refugee boats that enter our territory.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. embassy official in Bangkok called on Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis from the maritime influx of migrants.

“This is a regional challenge that needs to be addressed regionally, through coordinated international effort and in accordance with international conventions and maritime law,” Agence France-Presse quoted the American official as saying.

Malaysia arrests 38 suspects

In other developments, the chief of the Royal Malaysia Police announced that, between March and April, his force had taken down seven human trafficking rings and arrested 38 people suspected of involvement in people-smuggling.

The suspects included 16 Malaysians, 21 Burmese, and an Indonesian. Two police officers were among the 38.

“These syndicates operate in the northern areas of Malaysia and southern Thailand,” Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said, according to the state-run Bernama news agency.

“Their victims are predominantly [Burmese] and Bangladeshis,” he added in a statement issued during a joint anti-criminal cooperation meeting with his Thai counterpart in Phuket, Thailand.

Thailand is a major transit point for the trafficking of Rohingya, members of a Muslim minority fleeing persecution in Myanmar, where they are not recognized as citizens.

The maritime migrant crisis has followed in the wake of a Thai governmental crackdown on human trafficking, after more than 30 graves of migrants and traffickers’ camps were discovered in southern Songkhla province earlier this month.

But the chief minister of Rakhine, the Burmese state that is home to the Rohingya, denied in an interview that any Rohingya from his area were among the boat people who landed this week on distant shores.

“It is impossible that the boat people in Malaysia and Indonesia are from Myanmar. It was possible in the past, but now it is … almost impossible,” Maung Maung Ohn said.