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Desperate migrants facing death as their overcrowded boat began sinking fought for space on the stricken vessel, reportedly throwing some people overboard before they were plucked to safety on Friday by passing Indonesian fishermen.
The vessel, containing more than 700 Muslim minority Rohingya from Burma and Bangladeshis, which authorities say was turned away from Malaysian waters, is just the latest horror story to emerge from a human-trafficking crisis gripping Southeast Asia.
The region is facing mounting calls to address the problem but hopes of finding a coordinated solution look dim with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand vowing to turn back stricken boats and Burma threatening to boycott a planned regional summit on the issue.
On Friday, Burma accused Thailand of using the regional summit to divert attention from its own issues with people smuggling.
“We are unlikely to attend … we do not accept it if they [Thailand] are inviting us just to ease the pressure they are facing,” presidential office director Zaw Htay told AFP.
“The root cause [of the crisis] is increasing human trafficking. The problem of the migrant graves is not a Myanmar problem, it’s because of the weakness of human trafficking prevention and the rule of law in Thailand,” he added.
The one-day meeting in Bangkok at the end of the month had planned to include officials from 15 countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Burma, as well as Australia and the United States.
However Indonesian authorities’ pledge to turn away vessels did not stop local fishermen from going to the rescue of the latest boatload of forlorn, emaciated migrants, including included 61 children.
Officials described harrowing scenes on the packed boat, with the vessel half underwater by the time it was found off Aceh Province late on Thursday, and children swimming around it. The migrants had been at sea for two months, authorities said.
Pictures showed the migrants, who were taken to a warehouse in Langsa after being brought ashore early Friday by six fishing boats, looking exhausted with many wearing just shorts and sarongs.
“They were killing each other, throwing people overboard,” Sunarya, police chief in Langsa, told AFP. “Because [the boat] was overcapacity, some people had to go and probably they were defending themselves.”
Khairul Nova, a search and rescue agency official in Langsa, said the migrants began jumping from the listing boat when they saw the local fishermen approaching, desperate to be rescued.
“Their condition is generally bad, some of them have died at sea,” he said, without giving further details. “They were starving at sea, they fought among themselves.”
He said that some had sustained injuries to their heads, arms and legs and had been taken to hospital.
The boat was about 30 miles (50 kilometres) off the coast when it was spotted, Sunarya said.
He said the group had entered the waters of Malaysia, the preferred destination of many migrants in the region, in several boats but were then caught by the Malaysian navy, who herded them into one boat and pushed them towards Indonesian waters.
Despite Indonesian authorities’ previous pledge to turn back boats, Sunarya said several government agencies were now involved in helping the rescued migrants.
“It is for humanitarian reasons. Whoever they are, we should help because the boat was sinking and there were children swimming [around it],” he added.
Police said the boat was carrying 432 Bangladeshi men and the rest were Rohingya men, women and children, who face state-sanctioned discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Burma.
The same day that those migrants were saved, 47 more people from another vessel were rescued not far down the coast after the hungry passengers leapt into the water pleading with local fishing boats to help them.
The new arrivals brought the total number of migrants sheltering in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island and across the Malacca Strait from Malaysia, to more than 1,300.
Malaysia said on Thursday it would push boats full of migrants back to sea, a policy that has drawn criticism from the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
It has warned the situation could develop into a “massive humanitarian disaster” and has said governments should rescue the boatpeople rather than send them on their way.
The horror story in Indonesia only added to the sense of crisis in Southeast Asia. A boat carrying 300 Rohingya was discovered in Thai waters on Thursday, and among its passengers were many children and women who wept as they begged for food and water.
The boat left Thai waters early Friday after authorities repaired its engine and provided some food, with officials saying it was headed for Aceh.