They’re a new wave of Asian ‘boat people’.
Cast adrift by human traffickers, thousands are thought to be seeking refuge in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. But their vessels are being pushed back out to sea in what rights groups have denounced as a game of maritime ping pong with human life.
Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis fleeing poverty are said to account for most of the migrants, nearly 800 of whom were allowed ashore in Indonesia on Friday.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon says he is alarmed by reports of countries refusing entry to the drifting boats packed with migrants, many of them hungry and sick.
“The Secretary General urges governments to ensure that the obligation of rescue at sea is upheld and the prohibition on ‘refoulement’ is maintained,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
“He also urges governments to facilitate timely disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need.”
Rohingya Muslims are deemed second-class citizens in Myanmar. Tens of thousands have fled discrimination and abuse and they are usually joined by people from neighbouring Bangladesh fleeing poverty and looking for work.
Inter-governmental agencies called on the region’s governments to rescue the migrants first and worry about long-term solutions later.
“The situation is very grave,” said Joe Lowry, regional spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration in Bangkok.
“They have no food, no water and are drinking their own urine. This is a game of maritime ping pong with human life. We expect governments in the region to find a solution rapidly… or we will be finding boatloads of desiccated corpses floating around in the Andaman Sea in coming days.”
For those who have made it onto dry land, their desperate plight is far from over.
Others remain on their floating prisons in a crisis that erupted after Thailand launched a crackdown on people-smuggling networks.
The tragic fate of the migrants in Southeast Asia echoes the tragedy of those risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.