By Margie Mason and Robin McDowell
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Boats carrying more than 500 members of Myanmar’s long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim community washed ashore in western Indonesia on Sunday, with some people in need of medical attention, officials and a nonprofit organization said. They warned that thousands more are believed to be stranded at sea.
Steve Hamilton, deputy chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, said his teams were racing to the Aceh province sub-district of Seunuddon, where the boats landed.
Of the four boats found, three had apparently been abandoned by the smugglers and the other ran out of fuel, he said.
Most of those on the boats were Rohingya, but there were also some Bangladeshis on board, Hamilton said.
“We had nothing to eat,” said Rashid Ahmed, a 43-year-old Rohingya man who was on one of the boats. He said he left Myanmar’s troubled state of Rakhine with his eldest son three months ago.
“There were about 20 children on our boat — they were so hungry,” he said, crying as he spoke to The Associated Press by phone. “All we could do was pray.”
The Rohingya have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar.
Attacks on the religious minority by Buddhist mobs in the last three years have sparked one of the biggest exoduses of boat people since the Vietnam War, sending 100,000 people fleeing, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade.
An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 Rohingya are now being held in large ships in the Malacca Straits and nearby international waters, she said, adding that crackdowns on trafficking syndicates in Thailand and Malaysia have prevented brokers from bringing them to land.
That has added to a spiraling crisis, with some stranded at sea for more than two months.
Tightly confined, and with limited access to food and clean water, their health is inevitably deteriorating, Lewa said, adding that dozens of deaths have been reported in recent months.
Thailand has long been considered a transit point for human traffickers across the region.
The tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities started cracking down on smuggling networks on land — a move apparently aimed at appeasing the U.S. government as it prepares to release its annual Trafficking in Persons report next month. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.
In the past, Rohingya and Bangladeshis packed into ships in the Bay of Bengal.
Their first stop was almost always Thailand, where they were held in open pens in jungle camps as brokers collected “ransoms” of $2,000 or more from family and friends. Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia or other countries.
Those who couldn’t were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.
Since May 1, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, the apparent victims, they say, of smuggling rings.
Indonesian authorities said the migrants who arrived in Aceh early Sunday were taken to a police station and a sports stadium, where they were being given care.
Risky Hidayat, from Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, said some of the migrants mentioned that there was another boat with an unspecified number of people on it still at sea in the same area.
One of the Rohingya who arrived Sunday, Muhammad Juned, told the AP that he left Myanmar two months ago, hoping to go to Malaysia.
“We just wanted to leave because the situation in Myanmar is no longer conducive for us to stay,” he said. (end)
McDowell reported from Yangon, Myanmar. Associated Press writer Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.