The death toll is estimated to be over one hundred as Rohingya migrants are grappling with hunger and thirst in the seas of Southeast Asia.
It all began last week when a sickeningly overcrowded vessel carrying hundreds of Rohingya families who had previously escaped from Myanmar using Thailand as a way station was detected in the seas of Southeast Asia on May 13.
Chris Lewa, the founder and coordinator of an NGO named the Arakan Project, was quoted by the BBC as saying that he had received an emergency phone call from someone on the vessel. During the phone call, Lewa was informed that a group of migrants, including 84 children and 50 women, were stranded on a boat that was abandoned by its captain and crew, who also took some essential parts of the boat’s engine with them.
Unsure of their exact location, the group onboard the vessel, consisting of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants, thought that they were somewhere off the coasts of the Langkawi islands to the north of the Malaysia littoral.
Later reports suggest that the decrepit fishing boat in question initially held a total of over 350 migrants who had been fighting hunger, thirst, severe sun exposure, and disease for the last two-and-a-half months. A majority of the people on this particular vessel were ultimately saved, but the UN’s refugee agency reports that thousands more who share the same fate are still desperately waiting in line to be rescued.
Waves of migrants
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), around 8,000 more migrants are currently adrift on illegal vessels in the territorial waters of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Zaid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that the combined number of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who are currently stranded on boats adrift in disperse locations of the Southeast Asian seas is estimated to be around 6,000.
Last week, the Malaysian and Indonesian navies rescued over 1,600 migrants according to a report by Refugees International. 600 of these people have been sheltered in the Aceh province of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, while over 1,000 others have managed to come ashore and take shelter in Malaysia.
On May 15, Indonesia rescued another 900 Rohingya migrants who miraculously survived after their boat sank off the east coast of Sumatra. These migrants, whose boats have previously been shunned by Indonesian officials, are temporarily settled in indoor sports facilities and ad hoc shelters mostly in the Indonesian city of Langsa and are scheduled to be deported as soon as possible.
Thai officials announced that another 106 Rohingya were rescued the same day from an island off Thailand’s western coastline.
A brutal journey
Stab wounds and other injuries resulting from violent struggles for survival between those migrants from Bangladesh and Rohingya communities on board these vessels, mostly in the form of bloody fights with knives and sticks over water, food, and shelter, were common among the languishing migrants according to testimonies by Indonesian fishermen in the region.
It was also revealed that while sailing on jam-packed boats for over two months, many Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were thrown overboard as a result of petty fights, left to drown in the sea or be eaten by sharks.
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 920 migrants, most of whom were Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, died in the Bay of Bengal between September 2014 and March 2015. The total number of Muslim migrants from Myanmar who have fled persecution and poverty since November 2014 by way of illegal fishing boats is estimated to be over 20,000.
Seaborne trafficking in the region is mainly bound for Malaysia. While the Rohingya are risking their lives in a bid to escape sectarian violence in Myanmar, migrants from Bangladesh do not have such security concerns in mind and are instead oftentimes motivated by economic opportunities.
Largest refugee influx yet
This current flow of migrants is considered to constitute the largest influx of maritime refugees to Malaysia and Indonesia since the Vietnam War.
As the Thai government unexpectedly started intervening to halt busy human trafficking routes last week, the panic-stricken smugglers began abandoning their vessels, and the migrants onboard, in the middle of the sea. Local sources quoted by international correspondents suggest that the traffickers have been swindling the migrants by asking for ransoms from their families after abandoning the boats near the waters of Indonesia and Malaysia instead of receiving direct payments from the migrants after delivering them safely to their agreed destinations.
Local officials in both Myanmar and Thailand are also accused of complicity in the mass trafficking of Rohingya migrants. Several NGOs that are active throughout the region previously reported that the human trafficking “industry” is mainly based in Thailand.
Mounting international pressure
Survivors from the boats say that they were repeatedly turned back out to sea by Malaysia and Indonesia, therefore the supplies on these vessels have been running low at alarming rates despite the humanitarian aid that is occasionally delivered to them by the Indonesian and Malaysian navies.
Last week, the UN urged Indonesia and Malaysia to avoid sending the newly arriving boats back to sea, calling for regional capitals to coordinate their efforts and to put an end to the plight of the Rohingya migrants as soon as possible. The UN also asked countries in the region to hasten search and rescue operations in their territorial waters and beyond.
Meanwhile, the news of these desperate boatpeople fleeing to Malaysia and Indonesia by the thousands only to be turned away has triggered public outrage on a global scale. The US and Turkey as well as several other countries and various international organizations renewed their calls to governments throughout the region to take immediate action.