An Indonesian health official checks the condition of a group of rescued mostly Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, in Lhoksukon in Aceh province on Tuesday after Indonesian rescuers found their boat carrying 573 passenger stranded in waters off north Aceh province (AFP Photo/Chaideer Mahyuddin)
Malaysia joined Indonesia on Wednesday in vowing to turn back vessels bearing a wave of migrants, drawing warnings that the hardline policy could be a death sentence for boatloads of people at risk of starvation and disease.
As the UN's refugee agency accused regional authorities of playing with lives, more grim accounts emerged from among hundreds of migrants who endured weeks of torment at sea before being dumped by human-traffickers.
Mizanur Rahman, a 14-year-old Bangladeshi boy, said he and a friend spent two agonizing months crammed aboard a boat with an estimated 600 other people.
They subsisted on a single plate of rice per day, but were given nothing to eat the final two weeks, Rahman said.
He spoke in the northern Indonesian region of Aceh, where the two friends washed up this week after traffickers told them to "swim to shore if we wanted to stay alive".
"We wanted to go to Malaysia, dreaming of a better future of our families. After everything that happened to us, I would now prefer to die here rather than go back home," Rahman said.
Migrant groups are warning that thousands more men, women and children are believed stuck at sea or at risk of abandonment by smugglers since a Thai police crackdown disrupted people-smuggling routes.
Thailand has called for a May 29 regional summit to address what it called an "unprecedented increase" in arrivals of ethnic Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and impoverished Bangladeshi migrants.
But Malaysia — where more than 1,100 migrants came ashore this week — said it would turn away boats entering its waters unless they were about to sink.
"The policy has always been to escort them out of Malaysian waters after giving them the necessary provisions" including fuel, water and food, said First Admiral Tan Kok Kwee of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.
The Indonesian navy already has turned away at least one vessel packed with hundreds of abandoned migrants.
Vivian Tan, Bangkok-based spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the policy was "really worrying".
"We continue to appeal for countries in the region to share responsibility and avert a humanitarian crisis," she said.
"The first priority should be to save lives and provide humanitarian aid."
Joe Lowry, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Bangkok, said authorities were playing "maritime ping-pong".
"What we want is for governments to allow people to disembark so they can be treated and policy can be worked out later," he said.
Otherwise, "people are going to die in the hundreds and thousands on the sea".
The UNHCR agency says 25,000 people embarked from Bay of Bengal ports in January-March, double last year's rate.
Thousands of them are feared left in the lurch by the crackdown in Thailand, which began after the discovery of dozens of dead migrants in jungle graves earlier this month.
Bangladeshi authorities said they seized a fishing trawler filled with 116 of its nationals in the Bay of Bengal near Myanmar on Tuesday.
"They have been on the boat from 15 days to three months," coastguard station commander Dickson Chowdhury said, adding some had not eaten in a week.
Thousands of Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group denied citizenship by Buddhist-majority Myanmar, flee annually to escape discrimination and sectarian violence that has targeted them in recent years.
Muhammad Shorif, a 16-year-old Rohingya, fled the squalor of a refugee camp back home 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 meager 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 said, in Aceh.
The IOM has called for search-and-rescue operations to find stricken migrant boats.
Meanwhile, a manhunt intensified Wednesday for Pajjuban Aungkachotephan, a one time senior Thai provincial official who is the alleged kingpin of a people smuggling network, according to police.
Thai police believe that Pajjuban, known locally as Ko Tong, has fled the kingdom since a warrant for his arrest was issued on Saturday.
A probe is examining whether Ko Tong used the small island near the Malaysian sea border as a base to mastermind a trafficking network which has unraveled since May 1 when dozens of migrants' graves were found on the nearby Thai mainland.
A police crackdown following the grim discovery appears to have forced smuggling gangs to flee, abandoning hundreds of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh in a network of Thai jungle camps near the Malaysia border.
"Ko Tong is a mastermind of the trafficking gang in Satun province (bordering Malaysia), but I can't disclose all of the details," said Major General Paveen Pongsirin, a deputy regional commander in the Thai south.
"He has a lot of assets — tens of millions of baht in assets have been seized. He is a very prominent figure," he said.
Rights groups and observers have long accused Thai officials, including the police and military, of turning a blind eye to human trafficking — and even being complicit in the grim trade.
Police have arrested 18 people over the scandal, including senior local officials, with warrants out for 32 more.
However no law enforcement or military figures have been arrested yet.
Instead more than 50 police officers, including senior officials, have been "transferred" from their posts for failing to act against the trade. AFP