Southeast Asian nations on Thursday defended their resolve to keep boatloads of starving Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants off their shores, amid a storm of international and domestic criticism of the policy.
“The Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping pong, and instead work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“The Burmese government has created this crisis with their continued persecution of the Rohingya,” he said. “Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have made things much worse with cold-hearted policies to push back this new wave of ‘boat people’ that put thousands of lives at risk.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon “is alarmed by reports that some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants,” a statement from the U.N. said.
"The secretary-general urges governments to ensure that the obligation of rescue at sea is upheld … He also urges governments to facilitate timely disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need," it said.
‘Is that fair?’
The Thai navy on Thursday said it had repaired and resupplied a boat of 300 Rohingya about 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) off Satun province, but officials claimed its passengers wanted to stay aboard.
“None of them wanted to go to the Thai shore but wanted to travel to a third country,” deputy government spokesman Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said, the Associated Press reported.
Malaysia, meanwhile, turned away a boat carrying some 500 migrants off northern Penang state and another with 300 migrants aboard near Langkawi Island, according to reports.
"We are sending them the right signal, to send them to where they came from," Reuters quoted Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar as saying.
"Their country is not at war. If there is nothing wrong with the ship, they should sail back to their own country."
In Bangkok, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said Thailand had long allowed travel by migrants through its territory but could not allow them to remain on Thai soil.
“If we opened the door freely, anybody can come at will,” he said.
Thailand already has about 100,000 refugees in nine camps along its border with Myanmar, he said.
“Stop talking about if third countries would repatriate them; nobody wants them. But everyone wants the middle country like us to take responsibility. Is that fair?”
‘Islamic humanitarian measures are needed immediately’
Activists and religious leaders in affected countries expressed outrage over the turning away of migrant boats.
“This is not pushing back, this is pushing to death,” said Nur Khan, director of Ain o Salish Kendra, a legal aid organization in Bangladesh.
“This situation must be treated from a human point of view. In the sea, innocent living people are adrift, exploited and betrayed by traffickers. Pushing them to their deaths by not giving any shelter is inhumane,” he told BenarNews.
Amidi Abdul Manan, president of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, urged his government to act in concert with other Muslim countries to assist the migrants.
“Although they’ve been given food and drink on the boats, many of them are ill. They should be given treatment immediately, not just left there,” he said.
“If the cost of accommodating the refugees in question, Malaysia as a member of the OIC should use that connection and discuss addressing the needs of these refugees with other Islamic countries, he said, referring to the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
“Islamic humanitarian measures are needed immediately,” he urged.
In Indonesia – which rescued 600 migrants off Aceh earlier in the week but later turned another boat away – the head of the Indonesian Ulema Council also called for a humanitarian response.
"We should help them not only for the sake of religion but for the sake of humanity, and that is according to the Islamic teaching. We must help,” Din Syamsuddin told BenarNews.
‘One million people are waiting’
Malaysia resolved not to accept more vessels after 1,158 Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants reached its shores Monday. They are currently being transferred to a detention facility in Sik, an isolated area of Kedah state.
“After several boats carrying illegal immigrants slipped through, we are prepared to prevent the entry of more vessels,” Mohamed Thajudeen Abdul Wahab, secretary general of Malaysia’s National Security Council, told the state-run Bernama news agency Thursday.
“We cannot compromise in the matter because there will be no end to the influx of illegal immigrants. It is said that almost one million people are waiting in Myanmar and Bangladesh to set sail for Malaysia,” he said.
Despite its relatively robust economy Malaysia was too small a country to handle such an influx, a professor from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) said.
The government is currently spending RM 30 to RM50 (U.S. $8 to14) per immigrant per day, Azmi Hassan told Bernama.
“If we accept any more refugees after this, the situation will go beyond control and will jeopardize national security and prosperity,” he said. “We are a small nation and not a major power.”
Nani Yusof in Washington, Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok, Shahriar Sharif in Dhaka, and Aditya Surya in Jakarta contributed to this report.