“There were around 700 individuals in one group that landed in Aceh, they were in distress and a second group of around 50 people who also landed in Aceh,” said IOM Chief of Mission in Bangkok, Jeffrey Labovitz. “We’ve also heard about several fishing boats who helped Rohingya to land in [the Indonesian island of] Sumatra and then 106 who landed in Satun, an island in Thailand.”
Labovitz said Friday’s landings, after two months at sea, represented a positive precedent in the midst of a mounting crisis where a series of abandoned boats – which combined are packed with anywhere between 6,000 and 8,000 people – are reportedly being pushed between Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia as they float astray in the Andaman Sea.
Many of the passengers are stateless Rohingya people fleeing ethnic oppression in Myanmar or Bangladeshi economic migrants trying to escape poverty – two vulnerable groups of people now finding themselves abandoned in the vast waters and often bereft of food or water.
“Countries are only hosting them for very short time to provide them with food and water and then send them back to the next country, so it’s a ping-pong situation where Indonesia is sending them back to Malaysia and Malaysia is sending them back to Thailand,” said Silvia di Gaetano, the Myanmar Country of Origin Information Expert at Rights in Exile Programme.
None of these countries are signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means none of them have a legal obligation to provide any protection to asylum seekers, di Gaetano says, adding that unfortunately she does not see a policy shift on the horizon without Asean countries having a common legal framework to address asylum seekers.
What is emerging now is a series of murky accounts of rescues and abandoned ships as international agencies embark on trying to provide immediate aid to people reaching land.
Chris Lewa, coordinator of the Arakan Project, which monitors trafficking in the Andaman Sea, told RFI that she had been in contact with another ship carrying around 350 people, which according to some reports had denied an invitation to dock in Thailand because its leadership wanted to continue to Malaysia.
She says that many local fishing boats had probably seen the distressed ship but were probably to afraid to tow them anywhere.
“No one went out to search for them and it was necessary to call a group of international journalists to actually go to the navy headquarters with the boat’s information so that they could go out and find them and provide food,” Lewa said. “But they didn’t disembark them at all and they remained in the boat already more than two months.”
After fixing the ship’s engine and providing them with fuel, food and water, the Thai navy towed the ship back to international water and on Friday morning its whereabouts were unknown, said Lewa.
While the dangerous journey taken by asylum seekers and migrants is not a new issue, it has entered into uncharted territory. A recent Thai crackdown on human smugglers has caused chaos on traditional routes taken by traffickers who pass through the jungle on the Thai-Malaysia border with vulnerable migrants to collect fees from family members back home.
In light of this crackdown, smugglers at the helm of ships have fled, leaving behind passengers with no idea where they are or how to navigate.
Some boats have also been vandalised with their engines removed, according to the IOM, which announced a one-million-dollar funds to bring emergency relief to the migrants on Thursday.
“If this was a meaningful crackdown on human trafficking and abusive smugglers we would see protections for survivors, not more abuses,” said Matthew Smith, the executive director of the NGO Fortify Rights.
Di Gaetano also says that, while these countries appear up to the challenge of cracking down on smugglers, they are not ready to tackle the issue of migration because “in their minds there is always Australia close by, which is a signatory and furthermore the US, so it’s become more of an international problem than just a regional one”.
In a statement on Friday, Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia, said his government was “taking the necessary actions to deal with this humanitarian crisis”.
However, the UN has slammed the Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia for vowing to return approaching vessels.
“I am appalled at reports that Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have been pushing boats full of vulnerable migrants back out to sea, which will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths,” United Nations’ human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement on Friday. “The focus should be on saving lives not further endangering them.”
But he also pointed the finger of blame at Myanmar, saying that, if the country does not break its institutionalised racism against the Rohingya which includes denying them of citizenship, this dangerous form of migration will only continue.
However, Myanmar has so far undermined efforts to solve this growing problem by vowing to boycott a planned regional summit on the issue scheduled for 29 May.
“It’s a strategically negative decision to take at this moment since taking part of the meeting would show at least show Myanmar’s responsibility or accountability in this, at least theoretically,” said di Gaetano.
More than one million Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group, live in Myanmar, and more than 100,000 have fled persecution and violence in recent years.
“A lot of people are just assuming that everyone on these boats are just migrants and that’s an unfortunate trend that we’re seeing,” said Smith from Fortify Rights. “Most of these people, particularly the Rohingya, would qualify as asylum seekers and they should be treated as such.”