Human smugglers cripple vessel’s engine and abandon Rohingya migrants

OFF KOH LIPE, Thailand - A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants, including many young children, has been found drifting in Thai waters, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days.

Dozens of weak-looking people were on the deck of the stricken vessel, which was found apparently adrift several kilometres off the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe, in the Andaman Sea.

Sajida, 27, travelling with her four young children, said the boat was set adrift by people smugglers who damaged the engine and fled.

"We haven't had anything to eat for a week, there is nowhere to sleep ... my children are sick," she said.

A Thai navy helicopter later dropped several food packages and some of the men jumped into the water to retrieve the packets.

An AFP reporter saw one of the men eat handfuls of raw instant noodles in the water before swimming back to the boat.

A Thai navy officer on Koh Lipe said they planned to help fix the engine "so they can go to their destination".

The UN refugee agency and rights groups say thousands of men, women and children are believed stuck out at sea and at risk of starvation and illness after a Thai police crackdown disrupted well-worn people-smuggling routes.

"About 10 people died during the journey. We threw their bodies into the water," one migrant said in Rohingya to a boat carrying reporters. "We have been at sea for two months."

A group of women wearing headscarves huddled on the deck cried as reporters approached, the AFP reporter said.

The words "We are Myanmar Rohingya" were daubed in English on a black flag tethered to the wooden boat, while a large tarpaulin had been erected to protect the stricken and weak migrants from the sun.

Many of the male migrants were topless and wearing only stained longyi (sarong).

Rights groups fear hundreds, possibly thousands, of Rohingya have been cast adrift on rickety boats in the Andaman Sea in recent days, abandoned by smuggling gangs spooked by a belated crackdown on the thriving people-smuggling trade in southern Thailand.

Both the UN's refugee agency and the International Organisation for Migration have called for a coordinated search and rescue effort.