BANGKOK - Thousands of Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya from Myanmar remain stranded on boats off the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, as governments in the region indicate little interest in rescuing them.
Rights workers in touch by phone with one Thai-registered boat, believed to be in either the waters of Thailand or Malaysia with 350 migrants on board, has made repeated desperate appeals for assistance.
Those on board, including 50 women and 84 children, say they are enduring a fourth day without food or fresh water. The Thai captain and crew, including a Rohingya broker, allegedly abandoned the vessel Sunday. The passengers said they removed parts of the engine, disabling the vessel.
One youth aboard the boat claims that 40 on board have died, including 13 on Tuesday, but there is no way to verify the information.
“We do not know where they are. So now the main thing is to identify where they could be and, of course, on the Thai side or Malaysia side,” said Chris Lewa, the founder of The Arakan Project, who has been in repeated mobile phone contact with those on board.
Lewa, speaking to VOA on Wednesday, said cell phone contact had been made with a separate boat facing a similar plight. Its location also unknown.
“There are most likely many more [ships] in the same situation, abandoned,” said Lewa. “There should be an organized regional search-and-rescue operation taking place.”
Governments Reluctant to Take Action
Although Malaysia has been the country where many of the migrants were heading, the country has refused calls to rescue the ships. Authorities Tuesday said that if authorities encounter vessels carrying the migrants, as long as the boats are seaworthy, they would give provisions to those on board and then turn them away. The Thai and Indonesian navies have also followed a similar protocol.
But with international attention focused on the problem, and Thai authorities actively cracking down on smuggling networks, those still on the ships remain in limbo, with dwindling supplies and smuggling crews that may have abandoned them amid the scrutiny.
David Hammond, a British expert on maritime law, who founded the Human Rights at Sea NGO, told VOA, "If a [ship] master abandons his vessel and in this case with migrants or trafficked persons onboard, and if that vessel is flagged and the master known, the flag state has primacy to bring that individual to account." He also said, "In such cases however, vessels may regularly change their registration and flag status to avoid detection. This also brings up the wider issue of the continued general impunity of flag States in addressing and then sanctioning human rights abuses occurring under their flag."
Thai Crackdown Continues Against Smuggling Networks
Although Thailand is being lauded for arresting smuggling organizers and shutting down their jungle camps, there appears to be little progress yet against the numerous Thai-registered and unregistered boats which are also a vital cog of the smuggling system.
Secluded rubber plantations in the southern part of the kingdom, which offer easy land access to Malaysia, were used by smugglers as way stations for years. But the discovery of mass graves this month has led to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who took power in a bloodless coup one year ago, to order that the smuggling network be shut down.
The former army chief told reporters Tuesday that the military-led government is in talks about possibly opening refugee camps for Rohingya.
"We are discussing it," said the retired general Prayuth. "We have to consider many aspects, such as national security, because our main goal is to take care of the Thai people. But human rights cannot be denied either."
Thailand on Wednesday said it was in pursuit of the alleged kingpin of the ring, identified as Pajuban Aungkachotephan, a former official in Satun province.
An arrest warrant was issued on Saturday for Pajuban, also known as Ko Tong, who is believed to have fled to Malaysia, where he allegedly used a private island near the sea border as a transit point for smuggling people from Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The smuggling network, primarily for ethnic Muslim Rohingya, fleeing sectarian violence and discrimination in Myanmar (also known as Burma), has existed for years. But the Thai crackdown has disrupted the operation.
New Abandoned Smugglers Camp Found
Thai border police told VOA on Wednesday another large abandoned camp used by human smugglers to detain Rohingya refugees had been discovered near the Malaysian border. It includes nearly two dozen sleeping sheds, eight latrines and two watchtowers.
Soon after their arrival in such camps, Rohingyas and Bangladeshis would be asked if they had relatives or friends in Thailand, according to the Bangkok-based Freeland Foundation.
Those who said yes were asked to telephone their friends and relatives to ask for the equivalent of $3,000 or more in exchange for their freedom, with $2,000 being the lowest amount acceptable.
The others would eventually be moved to the Malaysian border where they were sold to Malaysian farmers for $1,000 each.
"Banking information indicates this was a multi-million dollar operation," according to a news release from Freeland. "Victims held for long periods of time were prone to sickness and allegedly beatings, leading some to die. They were buried instead of being reported to hospitals or authorities."
With such smugglers' detention facilities now, at least temporarily, closed down it is estimated 8,000 to 10,000 migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh may be at sea in rickety wooden boats.
UN Pleads for Help
U.N. agencies are calling on Southeast Asian nations to use their maritime forces to try to find and rescue them.
"We are calling for a concerted effort for humanitarian relief for these people who already, we know, have been stuck out at sea for six weeks," said Jeffrey Lebovitz, chief of mission in Thailand for the International Organization for Migration in a VOA interview.
Around 2,000 have been rescued or swam from ships off Indonesia and Malaysia this week. But at least one ship carrying about 400 people off Aceh on Monday was provided with food, water and supplies by Indonesia's navy and pushed out to sea.
In Myanmar, it is reported by those monitoring the smuggling, that two boats waiting to sail in the Bay of Bengal have disembarked all their passengers in Maungdaw and Bangladesh.
Despite the risks of a perilous sea journey where they face beatings or being thrown overboard for complaining about lack of food and water, hunger and disease in jungle camps and paying smugglers additional money to win their freedom in Malaysia, thousands of destitute Bangladeshis and repressed Rohingya continue to desire to migrate.
"That's something phenomenal to think about but there's no way we can condone this type of violence. It's something horrible," said IMO's Labovitz.
Thailand plans to hold an international conference on the situation in Bangkok on May 29.
Fifteen affected countries are to attend, according to the Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Including destitute economic migrants, a total of 25,000 people are believed to have taken boats from Bangladesh and Myanmar in the first three months of 2015, double the number in the same period last year.