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Indonesia

800 migrants rescued off Indonesia as pressure grows for solution

Hundreds of passengers say their boat sank off Sumatra after earlier being driven away by Malaysia

Nurdin Hasan for AFP, Lhokseumawe

Nurdin Hasan for AFP, Lhokseumawe

Updated: May 15, 2015 12:01 AM GMT
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800 migrants rescued off Indonesia as pressure grows for solution

A group of rescued migrants, mostly Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh, gathered on arrival at a new confinement area in the fishing town of Kuala Langsa in Aceh province on Friday (AFP Photo/Januar)

 

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About 800 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were rescued off Indonesia on Friday, as Myanmar undermined calls for a coordinated response to Southeast Asia's human-trafficking crisis by threatening to boycott a planned summit.

Hundreds more migrants were aboard a boat that was intercepted offshore by Indonesia's navy, a military spokesman said, while authorities worked out what to do with it.

The Indonesian and Malaysian policy of turning away stricken boats filled with Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar has been met with outrage, including from Washington and the United Nations.

Activists estimate up to 8,000 migrants may be at sea in Southeast Asia, with horrific tales emerging of passengers abandoned by abusive smugglers, horribly cramped conditions, starvation and death.

In his first public comments on the issue, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he was "very concerned with the plight of migrants" but gave no indication of a policy shift on an issue that has caused regional finger-pointing.

"We are in contact with all relevant parties, with whom we share the desire to find a solution to this crisis," he said in a statement, without elaborating.

It was not clear whether those "relevant parties" included Myanmar, which faces harsh criticism of its treatment of Rohingya and on Friday snubbed neighboring Thailand's call for a regional meeting on the problem on May 29.

The unfolding humanitarian crisis appears to have been precipitated by a Thai police crackdown that has thrown busy people-smuggling routes into chaos just as a surge of migrants has taken to the sea.

"We are unlikely to attend ... we do not accept it if they (Thailand) are inviting us just to ease the pressure they are facing," Myanmar presidential office director Zaw Htay said.

Indonesian police said at least 797 people were rescued Friday by fisherman in Aceh province on the east coast of huge Sumatra island.

Search and rescue officials said it was not immediately clear whether they had come from the same boat. Many passengers said their vessel headed towards Indonesia after earlier being driven away by Malaysia, according to police.

At least 61 children were ferried to shore by Indonesian fishermen. 

Nearly 600 migrants were already sheltering in Aceh after managing to get ashore in recent days.

UN 'appalled' by push-backs

Earlier Friday, a boat carrying about 300 Rohingya left Thailand's waters, a Thai official said, after authorities repaired its engine and provided food.

Its passengers included many children and women who had wept as they begged for food and water after arriving near the southern Thai island of Koh Lipe on Thursday.

They told journalists of a grim two-month odyssey in which 10 passengers had died of starvation or illness and were tossed overboard.

"We haven't had anything to eat for a week, there is nowhere to sleep... my children are sick," said Sajida, 27, a Rohingya who was travelling with her four young children.

A Thai official said the passengers — who wanted to reach Malaysia — declined offers to come ashore in Thailand, fearing they would be sent back to Myanmar. 

They planned instead to make for Indonesia, the official said.

Regional governments have been roundly chastised for what Human Rights Watch described as a deadly game of "human ping pong" in rejecting migrants.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Southeast Asia to "keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need".

He also reminded authorities they were obliged to rescue stricken boats and respect an international ban on expelling prospective refugees.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein went further, saying he was "appalled" at the migrant boat push-backs "which will inevitably lead to many avoidable deaths."

The Muslim Rohingya flee by the thousands each year to escape state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and recent sectarian violence against them.

There are more than a million Rohingya living in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine, many going back generations, but Myanmar insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The Bangladeshis are thought mainly to be economic migrants escaping their country's grinding poverty. AFP

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