UN agencies urge Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to stop pushing migrant boats back out to sea, as fears grow for those stranded with dwindling food supplies.
Above and photographs below: migrants on a trawler missing in the Andaman Sea for more than two days
An estimated 4,000 men, women and children from Myanmar and Bangladesh are adrift in the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said.
Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have been criticised for turning boats loaded with migrants away from their coastlines. Indonesia has four warships and a plane patrolling its territorial waters to prevent desperate migrants from reaching land.
One boat pushed back out to sea, carrying 300 migrants, has not been heard from in more than two days, raising concerns about the well-being of those on board.
Earlier this week William Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), warned that if the boats are left stranded much longer we will be “talking about a floating cemetery”.
A statement from the UN’s refugees and human rights organisations and the IOM calls on the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to “give priority to saving lives”.
The agencies say the Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants are fleeing “persecution, abject poverty, deprivation, discrimination, and abuse” and that migrants and refugees in the Bay of Bengal are at risk of rape and violence.
“We are deeply concerned at reports that boats full of vulnerable women, men and children are unable to land and are stranded at sea without access to urgently needed food, water, and medical assistance,” the statement reads.
“We urge states in the region to protect the lives of all aboard by allowing the passengers on these overcrowded boats to disembark safely.”
On Monday Thai police arrested the suspected kingpin of a human trafficking network as a part of a crackdown. Patchuban Angchotipan, a former official in the provincial government of the southern Satun province, is accused of human trafficking, smuggling illegal migrant workers into Thailand, detention of others leading to bodily harm and holding people for ransom.
However, this is of no help to the thousands currently stranded at sea – at least half of whom are thought to have been stranded for more than 40 days.
Reports are coming in of the terrible conditions on the boats – from those returned to Myanmar or from among the 3,000 who have been rescued, often by fisherman, or have swum to shore.
Mohammad Tayub, a 14-year-old Rohingya boy, says he was tricked onto a boat with the promise of a job in Malaysia.
He told the Associated Press that the boat’s crew beat him with a belt when he asked to use the toilet, and how violence was meted out if migrants did not sit tightly enough together.
There have been reports of deadly fighting breaking out on boats as food supplies dwindle. Rescued migrants from one boat, now staying in makeshift camps in the Indonesia port of Langsa, told reporters that 100 people were killed in a fight over remaining food with people stabbed, hanged and thrown overboard in the bloodshed.
In Myanmar, several hundred people have abandoned their journey and returned to Rakhine state after paying smugglers 200,000 to 300,000 kyat (£117 to £176) for re-entry, the UNHCR said.
“Their reports of food shortages, dehydration and violence on board are consistent with reports from arrivals in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia,” it said.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said last week the flow of migrants would continue until Myanmar ended discrimination against its Rohingya Muslim minority.
The missing boat of 300 migrants has not been heard from since Saturday evening.
Last Thursday the drifting trawler was found off the coast of Koh Lipe in the Andaman Sea, the migrants on board begging for help.
The gang in charge of the boat had abandoned it on a speedboat, people on board the boat told the Thai navy. They had continued to drive the boat south until it ran out of fuel, they said.
The Thai navy repaired the boat’s engine and escorted it into international waters. Thai authorities say the migrants were intending to carry on towards Malaysia.
Chris Lewa, whose Arakan Project tracks the movement of Rohingya boats, also said there has been no word from the boat since Saturday.
“We don’t have any news,” she said. “It’s unbearable not knowing what has happened to the people on board.”
The Arakan Project ahd been in contact with the boat by phone, but now the phones go unanswered.