The United Nations is intensifying pressure on Southeast Asian governments that have been reluctant to come to the rescue of refugees and migrants stranded at sea following a crackdown on human traffickers.
A joint statement Tuesday by a coalition of U.N. agencies directly appealed to the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to reverse their policies of pushing back the boats full of desperate refugees.
"We are deeply concerned at reports that boats full of vulnerable women, men and children are unable to land and are stranded at sea without access to urgently needed food, water, and medical assistance," the statement read.
All three countries have drawn international condemnation for turning away migrant boats in recent days, fearful their shores will be overwhelmed if the refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh are allowed to disembark.
Nearly 3,000 of the so-called boat people have been rescued or made their way to shore over the past week. Thousands more are believed to be drifting at sea with little or no supplies.
Many of the migrant boats were abandoned by human traffickers after a Thai crackdown on a vast people-smuggling ring.
The victims are mainly members of the stateless Rohingya minority group. Some are refugees fleeing religious persecution in Myanmar, where they are denied many basic rights. Others appear to be economic migrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Regional governments have in some cases provided the boats with emergency food, water, and medical supplies before pushing them back to sea. Other migrants who swam to shore have been placed in detention housing.
The U.N. statement strongly urged the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand "to facilitate safe disembarkation, and to give priority to saving lives, protecting rights, and respecting human dignity."
The press release was signed by U.N. refugee chief António Guterres, human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, and other top U.N. officials.
The U.N. estimates more than 88,000 migrants have taken to the sea since 2014, with 25,000 arriving in the first quarter of this year alone.
"Nearly 1,000 are believed to have perished at sea due to the precarious conditions of the voyage, and an equal number because of mistreatment and privation at the hands of traffickers and abusive smugglers," the statement read.
"In the Bay of Bengal, migrants and refugees are fed only white rice and are subjected to violence, including sexual violence. Women are raped. Children are separated from their families and abused. Men are beaten and thrown overboard."
Indonesia on Tuesday stressed that it cannot solve the issue alone. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Jakarta has "already done more than it should" to fulfill its international obligations.
"This irregular migration is not the problem of one or two nations. This is a regional problem which also happens in other places. This is also a global problem," said Marsudi.
The Philippines said Tuesday it is ready to assist the boat people and will not push back the refugee vessels if they reach its shores. It is not clear, however, if the poorly built and overcrowded migrant boats will be able to make the long journey to the Philippines.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.View full gallery