Asia boatpeople pushed back to sea as UN calls for rescue

Asia boatpeople pushed back to sea as UN calls for rescue
Malaysian maritime police inspect one of the boats which carried illegal Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants in Langkawi on May 12, 2015.

BANGKOK - Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia will continue to push boats holding thousands of migrants back to sea, a senior Thai official said on Wednesday, despite a UN appeal for a rapid rescue operation to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

Several thousand migrants, many of them hungry and sick, are adrift in Southeast Asian seas in boats that have been abandoned by smugglers following a Thai government crackdown on human trafficking, the United Nations has said.

"Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have decided not to receive boat people, as far as I am aware," Major General Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, spokesman for Thailand's ruling junta, told Reuters.

He declined to comment on the UN refugee agency UNHCR's appeal on Tuesday for an international search and rescue operation to rescue the thousands stranded on the seas between Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Malaysia and Indonesia have not made public their official policy on future migrant arrivals. Malaysia's Home Ministry declined to comment on the UN rescue appeal and Indonesian officials were not immediately available to comment.

The issue would be discussed at a meeting of 15 countries, to be held in Bangkok on May 29, Werachon said.

In Thailand, authorities are enforcing a long-held policy to push boats back. The policy involves offering food, water fuel and medical assistance to migrant boats but preventing them from landing.

There has been a surge in migrants from impoverished Bangladesh and Myanmar to Malaysia and Indonesia following the clampdown in Thailand, usually the first destination in the region's people-smuggling network.

Thailand ordered a clean-up of suspected traffickers' camps last week after 33 bodies, believed to be of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, were found in shallow graves near the Malaysian border.

That has led to many migrants being left out at sea.

But a senior Malaysian maritime official said on Tuesday, after over 1,000 people arrived on the Malaysian island of Langkawi at the weekend, that any more boats trying to land would be turned back

"We don't allow them in," said First Admiral Tan Kok Kwee, northern region head of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. "It's a policy matter."

Indonesia provided food, water and medical supplies to around 500 passengers on a boat off the coast of Aceh on Monday, before sending the vessel toward Malaysia. Nearly 600 migrants were rescued from overcrowded wooden boats stranded off Indonesia's Aceh province the previous day.

The Indonesian Navy said the passengers of the boat they sent on wanted to go to Malaysia, not Indonesia.

But advocacy group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights criticised the Indonesian action.

"Towing migrants out to sea and declaring that they aren't your problem any more is not a solution to the wide regional crisis," ABHR Chairperson and Malaysian lawmaker Charles Santiago said in a statement.

Many of the arrivals are Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority from Myanmar described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.

An estimated 25,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya boarded rickety smugglers' boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many in the same period of 2014, the UNHCR has said.

"When countries such as Thailand implement a push back policy, we find Rohingya bodies washing ashore," said Sunai Phasuk at Human Rights Watch in Thailand.

"If these three countries move forward with push backs, blood will be on their hands."

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