Castaway human-trafficking victims denied refuge on Malaysian shores

Human Trafficking
by Anna K. Poole
Posted 5/13/15, 11:20 am

A spiraling humanitarian crisis grips Southeast Asia as Malaysia and Indonesia have refused refuge to boats packed with Bangladeshis and Muslim Rohingyas, victims of Thai smuggling rings. Spooked by a recent regional crackdown on human trafficking, marine-based captors jetted away on speedboats, leaving their human cargo with little food, water, or navigational guidelines. Passengers are indefinitely trapped in floating prisons, even though some family members have shelled out ransom money of $2,000 or more.

Early today, Malaysian officials off the coast of Penang island found a boat crammed with more than 500 refugees. Authorities are contemplating what action to take next, as the boat is overcrowded with desperate people and considered too dangerous to board. The captives likely will not be allowed on shore, according to Zafar Ahmad, who heads the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization of Malaysia. 

“We are hearing that their plight is desperate but we are unsure what the fate of the boat is,” he said. “We urge the Malaysian government to give these Rohingya refugees protection and shelter.”

Within the past week, more than 1,600 migrants have landed on Malaysia’s Langkawi island, according to authorities. Malaysia’s Home Ministry released a statement detailing the demographics— 993 men, 104 women, and 61 children.

Thousands more are believed to remain marooned, and every day is a game of survival. 

“Time is not on their side,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. Many of the refugees have been stranded for two months or more.

With fears mounting of ships packed with dead bodies soon washing ashore, the UN high commissioner for refugees, along with several other foreign governments and international organizations, called emergency meetings to discuss the crisis. But “there doesn’t seem to be a clear mechanism for responding to something like this,” said Vivian Tan, Bangkok-based regional press officer for the UN refugee agency. 

Malaysia has no plans to extend a warm welcome. The national navy announced Tuesday it will reject all Rohingya- and Bangladeshi-filled boats seeking refuge. Langkawi island’s surrounding waters will receive round-the-clock patrol, marine commander Tan Kok Kwee said. Unless boats are actively capsizing, they will be turned away.

“We won’t let any foreign boats come in,” Tan said, adding that the navy would “give them provisions and send them away.”

Malaysia’s decision came a day after Indonesia also rejected a prison boat, giving passengers rice, noodles, and directions to Malaysia. That boat’s passengers sent out a distress signal, saying they had no fuel and the captives on board had been without food and water for three days. 

“They asked to be urgently rescued,” said Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project, which advocates for Rohingya Muslims, adding there were an estimated 350 people on board. Lewa, who communicated via phone to passengers, said she could hear them cheering when they thought the approaching Malaysian ship was bringing help. The cheers melted into screams as the boat moved away and the captives realized this was no rescue. “I [could] hear the children crying,” Lewa said.

Despite the looming death toll and refugee crisis, a major concern for the region is what to do with liberated Rohingya. Nearby countries worry that welcoming them will result in an unstoppable flow of poor, uneducated migrants over their borders.

Labeled by the United Nations as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, Rohingya Muslims have suffered state-sanctioned discrimination from Buddhist-majority Myanmar for decades. The nation considers Rohingyas illegal settlers and has rescinded their basic civil rights, caging them in apartheid-like camps with inadequate access to education, employment, or medical care.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Anna K. Poole

Anna is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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