GENEVA: The UN rights and refugee chiefs and other top officials Tuesday called on Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to disembark refugees stranded at sea as outrage mounted over Southeast Asia’s migrant crisis.
A statement said the three countries and the 10-nation ASEAN regional bloc should “make saving lives the top priority by . . . significantly strengthening search and rescue operations” and “facilitate safe disembarkation.”
It said the migrants should be housed in safe areas and in humane conditions, given medical care and then individually screened to determine whether they needed protection as refugees, asylum seekers, stateless people or victims of trafficking.
It was signed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the head of the International Organization for Migration, William L. Swing, and Peter Sutherland, special representative of the UN Secretary-General for international migration and development.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have drawn international condemnation for turning away boats carrying desperate Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladeshis, who are now in limbo at sea with little food and nowhere to go.
The statement said more than 88,000 migrants had 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,” it said.
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.”
The UN officials said the destination countries should halt immigration detention and other punitive measures, and also clamp down on traffickers and fight xenophobia.
The Bangladeshis are believed to be mainly economic migrants.
But the Rohingya, a minority in Myanmar, have been fleeing their homes in western Rakhine state after years of sectarian violence and discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist majority. Most head for Malaysia.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva that nearly 4,000 people from Myanmar and Bangladesh remained stranded at sea.
“In the last nine days, a total of 1,396 people have landed in Indonesia, 1,107 in Malaysia and 106 in southern Thailand,” he said.
“Since the weekend there have been no new reports of landings elsewhere in the region,” he said.
Each spring, boats stream southward out of the Bay of Bengal, trying to beat seasonal monsoon storms. Hundreds die every year, according to the UN refugee agency.
Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants on board a foundering vessel off Indonesia fought with axes, knives and metal bars in vicious clashes that left at least 100 dead, survivors said as they recovered from their ordeal.
Both groups described bloody, nightmarish scenes after the overcrowded vessel was abandoned by its crew last week, with desperate migrants “slaughtering” each other in fierce battles over dwindling supplies.
Exhausted survivors, many bearing bruises and cuts, told AFP from camps in Aceh province they believed between 100 and 200 people were killed in the fighting that erupted Thursday on the boat, which was carrying hundreds of migrants.
They are among nearly 3,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis who have come ashore in the past week in Southeast Asia, after a Thai crackdown disrupted long-established human-trafficking routes.
While many were hacked to death on board, others jumped from the ship as they sought to escape the carnage, and those that survived were rescued by local fishermen and brought to shore. Both sides blamed the other for starting the fighting.
“Suddenly the Bangladeshis came out of the deck, and they attacked all of us who were on the top of the boat,” said Rohingya migrant Asina Begun, 22, speaking to AFP from Langsa, an Aceh town where most of the migrants were taken.
“Those who wanted to save their lives had to jump in the sea, but my brother could not. When they found him, they beat him and then they slaughtered him. After that they threw him into the sea.”
However the Bangladeshis said the Rohingya, a Muslim minority fleeing persecution in Myanmar, had been favored by the boat captain, who only spoke a Myanmar language and gave them all the food and water. They said they were attacked after begging the Rohingya for supplies.