KOH LIPE, THAILAND —
Malaysian vessels on Saturday intercepted a boat crammed with migrants after the Thai navy towed it away from Thailand, the latest among a number of vessels pushed back to sea by governments ignoring a U.N. call for immediate rescue.
Thousands of people are adrift in the Andaman Sea after smugglers abandoned their vessels following a Thai crackdown on human trafficking. Many of the migrants are thirsty and sick.
Migrants aboard the intercepted boat were visibly distressed on the packed deck under a blazing sun, a Reuters witness said. Women were crying and some waved their arms and shouted, a Thai navy officer aboard a patrol boat told Reuters on Saturday. The officer declined to give his name.
The boat has been towed back out to sea by the Thai navy twice after drifting for days. On both occasions, the navy fixed its engine and supplied it with food, water and fuel before towing it out of Thai waters.
The migrants told the Thai navy on Saturday they wanted to go to Malaysia, the officer said, adding, "We fixed their engine and showed them where Malaysia is."
After the Thais released the boat, it entered neighboring Malaysian waters and was intercepted, he said.
It was unclear what the Malaysian authorities would do with the migrants. But Malaysia's government said this week it didn’t want to receive large numbers of illegal migrants and would push boats back out to sea.
The International Organization for Migration has criticized the region's governments for playing "maritime pingpong" and endangering migrants’ lives.
The United Nations this week urged governments to fulfill an obligation to rescue those at sea and "keep their borders and ports open ... to help the vulnerable people who are in need."
But there was no sign of a coordinated rescue operation, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Saturday.
"We're not seeing any such moves from any governments in the region even though we're calling on the international community to take action because people are dying," Jeffrey Savage, who works with the UNHCR in Indonesia, told Reuters.
While many remain at sea, thousands have made it to land. Nearly 800 migrants came ashore in Aceh in Indonesia on Friday, bringing the total landing in Indonesia and Malaysia’s northwest to more than 2,500 over the last week.
Thailand found 106 more migrants on Friday on an island in the southern province of Phang Nga, provincial governor Prayoon Rattanasenee told Reuters. He said it was unclear how they got there.
"Most of them are men, but there are also women and children," Prayoon said. "We are trying to determine whether they were victims of human trafficking."
Crackdown alters routes
The Thai clampdown has made the preferred trafficking route through Thailand too risky for criminals preying on Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and Bangladeshis seeking to escape poverty.
An estimated 25,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya boarded smugglers' boats in the first three months of this year, twice as many in the same period of 2014, the UNHCR has said.
The United Nations said the deadly pattern of migration by sea across the Bay of Bengal would continue unless Myanmar ended discrimination.
Most of the 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, also known as Burma, are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine state in the west of the predominantly Buddhist country. Almost 140,000 were displaced in clashes with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.
Myanmar uses the term "Bengalis" for the Rohingya, a name most Rohingya reject because it implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh despite having lived in Myanmar for generations.
Regional talks planned
Thailand is hosting talks on May 29 for 15 countries to discuss migration in the region.
Myanmar had not received a formal invitation to the talks and would not attend if the word Rohingya was used, Zaw Htay, a senior official from the president's office, said Saturday in responding to questions emailed by Reuters.