LANGKAWI, Malaysia (AP) — Abandoned at sea, thousands of Bangladeshis and members of Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya Musilm minority appear to have no place to go after two Southeast Asian nations refused to offer refuge to boatloads of hungry men, women and children.
Smugglers have fled wooden trawlers in recent days amid fear of a massive regional crackdown on human trafficking syndicates, leaving migrants to fend for themselves.
The United Nations pleaded for countries in the region to keep their borders open and help rescue those stranded.
“We won’t let any foreign boats come in,” Tan Kok Kwee, first admiral of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, said Tuesday.
Unless they’re unseaworthy and sinking, he said, the navy will provide “provisions and send them away.”
Hours earlier, Indonesia pushed back a boat packed with hundreds of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, saying they were given food, water and directions to Malaysia — their original destination.
Southeast Asia is in the grips of a spiraling humanitarian crisis, with about 1,600 migrants landing on the shores of the two Muslim-majority countries that over the years have shown the most sympathy for the Rohingya’s plight.
With thousands more believed to be in the busy Malacca Strait and nearby waters – some stranded for more than two months – activists believe many more boats will try to make land in coming days and weeks.
One boat begged Tuesday to be rescued of Malaysia’s Langkawi island, but it became clear by nightfall no help was on the way. One activist said she could hear the children crying when she got a call through to the boat.
Labeled by the U.N. one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, the Rohingya have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Denied citizenship by national law, the Muslims are effectively stateless. Access to education and adequate health care is limited and freedom of movement severely restricted.
In the last three years, attacks on Rohingya have left 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others into crowded camps just outside akyab (Sittwe), the capital of Arakan( Rakhine) state, where they live under abysmal, apartheid-like conditions, with little or no opportunity for work.
On Tuesday, a boat was stranded not far from Malaysia’s Langkawi island, with hundreds of desperate Rohingya, about 50 of them women, said Chris Lewa, director of the non-profit Arakan Project.
They told her by phone that their captain had fled days ago, and that they needed to be rescued.
Soon after, she heard cheers, and people on board spotted a white vessel with flashing lights. When they realized authorities weren’t there to help, however, women started to scream.
“Oh! I could hear children crying!,” she told AP. “It was terrible! I can hear them.”
A former U.S. Congressman urged the American government to step in.
“Immediate action is needed to rescue thousands of Rohingya before the Andaman Sea becomes a floating mass grave,” said Tom Andrews, who recently returned from Myanmar and Malaysia, where he met with families of fleeing Rohingya.
Note:Changes have been made,AP is not responsible for these.