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1,000 land in Asian migrant crisis

Published 16/05/2015

Newly arrived Rohingya migrants sit inside a temporary shelter at Kuala Langsa Port in Indonesia (AP)
Newly arrived Rohingya migrants sit inside a temporary shelter at Kuala Langsa Port in Indonesia (AP)

More than 1,000 people fleeing persecution in Burma and poverty in Bangladesh have landed in south-east Asia, describing killings, extortion and near-starvation after a harrowing journey at sea.

An increasingly alarmed United Nations warned against "floating coffins" and urged regional leaders to put human lives first. The United States urged governments not to push back new boat arrivals.

The waves of weak, hungry and dehydrated migrants who arrived yesterday were the latest to slip into countries that have made it clear they are not welcome.

But thousands more are still believed stranded at sea in what has become a humanitarian crisis no one in the region is rushing to solve.

Most of the migrants were crammed onto three boats that Indonesian fishermen towed ashore, while a group of 106 people were found on a Thai island known for its world-class scuba diving and brought to the mainland.

"If I had known that the boat journey would be so horrendous, I would rather have just died in Myanmar," said Manu Abudul Salam, 19, using another word for Burma.

She is a Rohingya from Rakhine state where three years of attacks against the long-persecuted Muslim minority have sparked the region's largest exodus of boat people since the Vietnam War.

The teenager was aboard the largest boat to come ashore yesterday, a wooden vessel crammed with nearly 800 people that was towed to the Indonesian village of Langsa in eastern Aceh province.

The vessel was at sea when authorities around the region began cracking down on human trafficking two weeks ago.

Aid groups and rights workers have warned that the crackdown prompted some captains and smugglers to abandon their ships and leave migrants to fend for themselves - a claim was corroborated by survivors.

She said she watched the captain on her ship fleeing on a speedboat several days ago after apparently receiving a call on his mobile phone. Before he left, he destroyed the boat's engine, she said, and the boat began to drift.

With food and water running out, tempers flared and fighting broke out, she said, sobbing, saying that her 20-year-old brother was among dozens killed in violent clashes between the Bangladeshis and Rohingya on board.

"They thought the captain was from our country, so they attacked us with sticks and knives," she said. "My brother is dead."

The bodies of the dead were thrown into the sea, she said.

A 19-year-old Bangladeshi survivor, Saidul Islam, also said that dozens died on the ship from starvation and injuries after fighting broke out following the captain's evacuation.

His voyage lasted three months, starting when a man turned up at his village and asked if anyone wanted a boat ride to Malaysia, known for better job prospects.

But once at sea, the captain demanded hundreds of dollars and made the men call their families to secure payment. There were also beatings aboard the vessel, which was stifling hot and cramped.

"We could not stand up. When we asked for water, the captain hit us with wire," he said.

South-east Asia for years tried to quietly ignore the plight of Burma's 1.3 million Rohingya but is now being confronted with a dilemma that in many ways it helped create.

In the last three years, more than 120,000 Rohingya have boarded ships to flee to other countries, according to the UN refugee agency.

No countries want them, fearing that accepting a few would result in an unstoppable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.

But south-east Asian governments at the same time respected the wishes of Burma at regional gatherings, avoiding discussions of state-sponsored discrimination against the Rohingya.

Burma , in its first comments as the crisis, indicated it will not take back migrants who claim to be Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Burma and are effectively stateless.

"We cannot say that the migrants are from Myanmar unless we can identify them," said government spokesman Ye Htut.

"Most victims of human trafficking claim they are from Myanmar is it is very easy and convenient for them."

Even the name is taboo in Burma, which calls them "Bengalis" and insists they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though Rohingya have lived in the majority-Buddhist country for generations.

The deputy spokesman for the UN secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told reporters that Ban Ki-moon plans to speak to regional leaders to urge them to put human lives first in the migrant crisis.

"We don't want them, in other words, to be in floating coffins," Mr Haq said.

Most of the migrants are believed to be heading to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country that has hosted more than 45,000 Rohingya over the years but now says it cannot accept any more. Indonesia and Thailand have voiced similar stances.

Earlier this week, about 1,600 migrants were rescued by the Malaysian and Indonesian navies, but both countries then sent other boats away.

As boats arrived in scattered spots of Indonesia and Thailand yesterday, it was increasingly clear that nobody knows how many boats are adrift or where.

The boat that landed in Langsa was crammed with about 790 people, including 61 children and 61 women, many weak from lack of food and water. Fishermen spotted the boat on the verge of sinking.

About 15 miles)south of Langsa, fishermen rescued a smaller boat carrying 47 Rohingya, also dehydrated and hungry.

In neighbouring North Sumatra province, fishermen rescued a third boat with 96 weak and hungry people adrift in a motorless boat. They were provided basic shelter and food.

Separately, the Thai navy found 106 people, mostly men but including 15 women and two children, on a small island off the coast of Phang Nga province, an area known as the Surin Islands and famous for its scuba diving. They were brought to a police immigration facility on the mainland.

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