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Malaysia turns away 800 migrants


The boat used to carry Rohingya Muslims from Burma and migrants from Bangladesh is docked at a port in Lhokseumawe (AP)

The boat used to carry Rohingya Muslims from Burma and migrants from Bangladesh is docked at a port in Lhokseumawe (AP)

The boat used to carry Rohingya Muslims from Burma and migrants from Bangladesh is docked at a port in Lhokseumawe (AP)

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis abandoned at sea by human traffickers have nowhere to go as Malaysia turned away two boats crammed with migrants and Thailand kept at bay a third boat with hundreds more.

"What do you expect us to do?" Malaysian deputy home minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar said. "We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely but they cannot be flooding our shores like this.

"We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here," he said, just days after about 1,000 refugees landed on the shores of Langkawi, a popular resort island in northern Malaysia near Thailand. Another 600 have arrived surreptitiously in Indonesia.

South East Asia, which for years tried to quietly ignore the plight of Burma's 1.3 million Rohingya, finds itself caught in a spiralling humanitarian crisis that in many ways it helped create. In the last three years, more than 120,000 members of the Muslim minority, who are intensely persecuted in Buddhist-majority Burma, have boarded ships to flee to other countries, paying huge sums of money to human traffickers.

But in the face of a crackdown by security forces of various countries, the smugglers have been abandoning the ships, leaving the refugees to fend for themselves. An estimated 6,000 remain stranded at sea.

Despite appeals by the UN and international aid agencies, no government in the region - Thai, Indonesian or Malaysian - appear willing to take them in, fearing that accepting a few would result in an unstoppable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.

Mr Wan Junaidi said about 500 people on board a boat found on Wednesday off the coast of northern Penang state were given provisions and then sent on their way. Another boat carrying about 300 migrants was turned away near Langkawi island overnight, according to two Malaysian officials.

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Meanwhile, Thai authorities also spotted a boat with migrants on the sea border between Thailand and Malaysia, Satun province governor Dejrat Simsiri said.

He said Thai boats, including navy and national parks vessels, are now checking out the migrants' boat "to make sure they do not come into Thai waters".

"We are monitoring from afar but it appears that the people are in frail condition ... there are hundreds of them," he said.

Mr Dejrat said Thailand will provide food and fuel and send them to a "third country" if that is what they want.

"It's unlikely that we will bring them to shore ... we will need order from higher officials before we can proceed," he said.

Earlier, Thailand's foreign minister General Thanasak Patimaprakorn said his government will not set up an official refugee shelter for the Rohingya people but is willing to provide short-term assistance based on humanitarian principles.

Malaysia, which is not a signatory of international conventions on refugees, is host to more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the majority of whom are from Burma. More than 45,000 of them are Rohingya, according to the UN refugee agency, many more than almost any other country.

But because they have no legal status, job opportunities are limited. They also have little or no access to basic services such as education and healthcare, and are vulnerable to arrests and deportation. A small number are resettled to third countries.

Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch Asia, accused Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia of playing "a three-way game of human ping pong". At the same time, the three countries and others in South East Asia have for years bowed to the wishes of Burma at regional conferences, avoiding all discussions of state-sponsored discrimination against the Rohingya.

Denied citizenship by national law, members of the Rohingya minority are effectively stateless. They have limited access to education or adequate healthcare and cannot move around freely. They have been attacked by the military and chased from their homes and land by extremist Buddhist mobs.

Mr Wan Junaidi said it was time to put pressure on the former pariah-state to address the Rohingya crisis.

"You talk about democracy, but don't treat your citizens like trash, like criminals until they need to run away to our country," he said.

Indonesia denies it had a "push back" policy, saying the Malaysian-bound vessel strayed into its waters by accident.

"This is a grave humanitarian crisis demanding an immediate response," said Matthew Smith, executive director of non-profit human rights group Fortify Rights. "Lives are on the line. Regional governments should act decisively to rescue and protect asylum seekers and trafficking survivors, not drive them back out to sea."

Increasingly over the years, Rohingya boarding boats in the Bay of Bengal have been joined by people from neighbouring Bangladesh, most of them seeking an escape from poverty.

For those fleeing, the first stop until recently was Thailand, where migrants were held in jungle camps until their families could raise hefty ransoms so they could continue onward. Recent security crackdowns forced the smugglers to change tactics, instead holding people on large ships parked offshore.

Initially they were shuttled to shore in groups on smaller boats after their "ransoms" were paid. But as agents and brokers on land got spooked by arrests - not just of traffickers but also police and politicians - they went into hiding.

That created a bottleneck, with migrants stuck on boats for days and weeks.

Thai prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha also made it clear that his government does not have resources to host refugees.

"If we take them all in, then anyone who wants to come will come freely. I am asking if Thailand will be able to take care of them all. Where will the budget come from?" Mr Prayuth said.

"No one wants them. Everyone wants a transit country like us to take responsibility. Is it fair?" he said.

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