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Malaysia and Indonesia have vowed to turn back any boats carrying migrants that enter their waters, as the UN calls for “a massive international search and rescue operation” in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca.
Thousands of migrants have been stranded at sea as their traffickers abandon them without food, water or fuel at sea following a crackdown by the Thai government after the grim discovery of bodies at traffickers’ camps in the country’s south.
“The policy has always been to escort them out of Malaysian waters after giving them the necessary provisions,” including fuel, water and food, First Adm Tan Kok Kwee of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency told AFP on the resort island of Langkawi.
More than 1,000 exhausted and starving migrants have been dumped ashore on Langkawi or deserted off the coast on their boats in recent days.
Indonesia’s navy has said it turned away one vessel packed with hundreds of abandoned migrants.
These announcements come after the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called for immediate action in order to head off a humanitarian catastrophe.
“UNHCR is calling today for a massive international search and rescue operation to try and find these people,” said Jeffrey Savage of the UNHCR in Jakarta on Tuesday.
“What we’re hearing from these people is that they’ve been stuck out at sea for weeks and months, and then the smugglers just deserted them,” he said. “It’s something that is really a massive humanitarian crisis waiting to happen. We’re hoping the international community will step up and try and resolve the problem.”
Thai authorities’ swift promises to dismantle human trafficking camps have come after intense international attention due to the uncovering of dire settlements used by smugglers as they transport their human cargo, causing traffickers to go to ground.
“Smugglers have stopped coming to land, and we’ve also seen a stop in their departures from Bangladesh and northern Rakhine [Arakan] State,” said Jeff Labovitz of the International Office for Migration, Asia Pacific.
The dire health of the migrants that have arrived ashore this weekend casts great fears for those still at sea, stresses Labovitz.
“Two percent have a very severe condition called Beriberi, which is near starvation where they can die. Four percent are severely malnourished and up to 40 percent are under-fed and they’re not well. If you have other conditions, you’re gonna have deaths at sea,” he said.
A hastily scheduled meeting to address the issue of ‘irregular migration’ in the region has been set for 29 May, according to Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Officials from Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Bangladesh, Australia, Cambodia, Laos, the US and Vietnam will convene at the meeting in Bangkok, according to the ministry.
Speaking on Tuesday, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called for cooperation to solve the issue.
“We need to speed up coordination [with related nations] to help solve the human trafficking [crisis] as soon as possible, according to the law.
“We [Thailand and related nations] need to help each other to handle this problem. If we keep accusing each other [of being cause of problem] the problem won’t go anywhere,” Prayut said.
“Today, I need to sort out three things: resolve the problem within ASEAN, and on behalf of Thailand; I have also asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss among themselves regarding this matter,” he said.
Recent arrivals in Indonesia and Malaysia have recounted horrific tales.
Muhammad Shorif, a 16-year-old Rohingya from Burma, officially known as Myanmar, fled the squalor of a refugee camp in hopes of reaching relatively prosperous Malaysia.
He said he spent a month aboard a smuggling ship jammed with hundreds of others who survived on meagre rations and faced beatings from armed smugglers.
“Six people on our boat died due to illness and hunger, and the captain ordered that their bodies be thrown to the sea,” he told AFP in Indonesia’s northern Aceh region.
He and hundreds of others came ashore in Aceh after smugglers left them on the boat to fend for themselves.