Migrant boat re-enters Malaysian waters after refusing offer to land: Thai officials

02:21 - Source: CNN
Migrants remain stranded at sea

Story highlights

NEW: Hundreds more Rohingya migrants came ashore in Indonesia Friday, says IOM

Thai Navy airdrops supplies and repairs engine of separate stricken boat carrying 300 Rohingya migrants

Thailand says it offered to let the boat disembark, but those on board did not want to

CNN —  

The Royal Thai Navy airdropped food and water to hundreds of desperate Rohingya migrants stranded on a stricken boat off southern Thailand – then fixed the vessel’s engine so it could continue on to Malaysian waters.

In the latest developments in the crisis engulfing Southeast Asia, hungry migrants were filmed jumping from the boat into the water early Friday to recover the provisions dropped from a Thai military helicopter.

Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it had dispatched medical teams in response to a request from the Indonesian government after two more vessels containing hundreds of Rohingya migrants made landfall in Aceh.

The larger vessel had about 700 people aboard, including many women and children, and the smaller one about 50, according to Jeff Labovitz, Bangkok-based spokesman for the IOM. Ten people on board the larger vessel were in critical condition with severe malnutrition and dehydration, but were expected to survive, he said.

The boat in Thai waters, carrying about 300 Rohingya men, women and children, was found floating with a broken engine near the southern Thai island of Lipe, having been abandoned by its captain but with two crew onboard, said the governor of Thailand’s Satun Province, Dejrat Simsiri.

The boat then set out on a southwest course and re-entered Malaysian waters, after rejecting an offer from Thai authorities to allow the passengers to come ashore in Thailand, according to Thai government spokesman Colonel Weerachon Sukhontapitak and an international body.

Thailand’s deputy government spokesman Major General Sansern Kaewkumnerd said Thai naval officers who inspected the vessels were told the boat intended to continue to a “third country.”

“The Thais agreed to allow them to disembark, they said no,” said Jeff Labovitz, Bangkok-based spokesman for the International Organization Migration (IOM), which is monitoring the unfolding crisis on Southeast Asian waters.

“That’s really important – the Thais did the right thing here.”

Asked why those on board would have turned down the offer to leave the vessel, he said: “I have to assume they don’t really understand what’s going on.”

Malaysia was the migrants’ desired destination, he said, and it was also possible that trafficking brokers on board, concerned about avoiding Thai authorities, were calling the shots.

“Thailand is cracking down – if you’re a broker you’re going to be interviewed and detained,” he said.

As a consequence, he said, the “game of ping pong” involving the vessel and other migrant boats was set to continue. Earlier in the week, he said, Malaysian authorities had given the same boat food and water, before turning it around.

Crisis spreads

Thousands of migrants – mostly members of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority, and also economic migrants from Bangladesh – are believed to be stranded aboard rickety traffickers’ ships in the busy waters of the Malacca Strait and the Andaman Sea, looking for a safe harbor to take them in.

Rights groups have called on regional governments to mount urgent search and rescue missions to save the imperiled migrants aboard the boats, many of which they say have been abandoned by their captains.

But despite the calls, officials from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia say they have instead refueled and restocked migrant vessels and sent them on their way – with claims boats are refusing offers to come ashore.

A top Malaysian official told CNN Thursday the surge of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh was unwelcome, and his government would turn back any illegal arrivals.

“We cannot welcome them here,” Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jaafar said.

“If we continue to welcome them, then hundreds of thousands will come from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

“If the boat is still good and can sail back, we give them food, and drink and fuel and send them back.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak issued a statement Friday saying he was “very concerned with the plight of migrants in our region” and would “not tolerate any form of human trafficking.”

“This is an issue of international and regional importance,” read the statement.

“We are in contact with all relevant parties, with whom we share the desire to find a solution to this crisis.”

Arrmanatha Nasir, a spokesman for the Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters Wednesday that an Indonesian ship had given provisions to a migrant boat it encountered on patrol in the Strait of Malacca before the boat carried on its way to Malaysia – which he said was its intended destination.

“The people on the boat did not want to go to Indonesia, but they asked for help, clean water and food,” he said. “After the aid was given, they parted.”

Indonesia was providing food and shelter to 582 migrants rescued from boats off the coast of Aceh Sunday, and was working with international bodies to provide them with documentation and temporary relocation, he said.

IOM spokesman Labovitz said about 80 Rohingya migrants also came ashore on Indonesian fishing boats Friday, near Camat Pangkalan Susu, Sumatra.

READ MORE: Migrant boat, out of fuel, refused entry to Indonesia

Thai crackdown

More than 1,700 migrants – both Rohingya and economic migrants from Bangladesh – have landed in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand since Sunday, officials say, after Thai officials began cracking down on human trafficking camps operating in the country’s south near the Malaysian border, disrupting established people smuggling networks.

The crackdown followed the discovery of dozens of bodies in trafficking camps in the jungle.

Rohingya migrants swim to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai helicopter.
Rohingya migrants swim to collect food supplies dropped by a Thai helicopter.

With the Thai pipeline for illegal migrants closed, overcrowded traffickers’ boats have begun offloading their human cargo on the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia – Muslim-majority countries that have shown sympathy for the Rohingya in the past.

Alternatively, crews have simply abandoned them to drift.

“It’s harrowing to think that hundreds of people are right now drifting in a boat perilously close to dying, without food or water, and without even knowing where they are,” said Kate Schuetze, Asia Pacific researcher for rights group Amnesty International.

’Diseases, social problems’

Malaysia is processing more than 1,000 recently arrived migrants, with the aim of sending them home, said Wan Junaidi Jaafar.

He said the 1,058 new arrivals on Langkawi Island had been transferred to another state, and were in the process of being repatriated.