On boat shunned by Malaysia, cries of 'please help us, I have no water'

A wooden fishing boat carrying several hundred Rohingya migrants from Myanmar adrift west of the Thai mainland, May 14, 2015. — Picture by Thomas Fuller for The New York Times
A wooden fishing boat carrying several hundred Rohingya migrants from Myanmar adrift west of the Thai mainland, May 14, 2015. — Picture by Thomas Fuller for The New York Times

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BANGKOK, May 14 — A wooden fishing boat carrying several hundred migrants from Myanmar was spotted adrift in the Andaman Sea today, part of an exodus in which thousands of people have taken to the sea in recent weeks but no country has been willing to take them in.

Cries of “Please help us! I have no water!” rose from the boat as a vessel carrying journalists approached. “Please give me water!”

The green and red fishing boat, packed with men, women and children squatting on the deck with only tarps strung up to protect them from the sun, was turned away by the Malaysian authorities yesterday, the passengers said.

The passengers said 400 migrants were aboard the boat, which was north of the Malaysian island of Langkawi and west of the Thai mainland. At least 160 people were visible above deck.

Women and children wailed as the boat with journalists approached.

“Myanmar refugees! Myanmar refugees!” a man who gave his name as Selim yelled to a reporter.

The passengers said that they had been on the boat for three months, that 10 of them had died during the voyage and that their bodies had been thrown overboard.

They said that the boat’s captain and five crew members had abandoned them six days ago.

“I am very hungry,” said a 15-year-old boy, Mohamed Siraj, who said he was from western Myanmar. “Quickly help us please.”

An estimated 6,000 to 20,000 migrants fleeing ethnic persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh are adrift in the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca, many believed to have been abandoned by their traffickers with little food or water.

Their presence has created a regionwide crisis in Southeast Asia. Most were thought to be headed to Malaysia, but after more than 1,500 migrants came ashore in Malaysia and Indonesia in the past week, both countries declared their intention to turn away any more boats carrying migrants. Thai officials have not articulated an official policy since the crisis began, but Thailand is not known to have allowed any of the migrants to land there.

This afternoon, a Thai navy speedboat arrived near the migrant boat in the Andaman Sea, having been alerted to its presence by The New York Times.

The navy vessel stayed about 100 yards away from the migrant boat, and Thai sailors appeared to be observing it, but they did not board it or send it away. At one point they tossed packages of instant noodles to the boat, but it was not clear that the migrants had any means to cook them.

“We want to watch them from afar,” said Lt. Cmdr. Veerapong Nakprasit, who was on the Thai navy boat. “We will help them fix their engine. Their intention is to go to Malaysia. They have entered illegally.”

Chris Lewa, the coordinator of the Arakan Project, which monitors trafficking in the Andaman Sea, had been in sporadic contact with the boat for the past several days. The passengers, who shared one mobile phone, told her that they had no water and food and requested help.

Lewa said families of the passengers told her the boat left waters off Myanmar around March 1. The passengers paid or agreed to pay to be taken to Malaysia, she said, and other vessels linked to the traffickers had delivered food and water to the boat during the journey until the crew abandoned it.

She said that the passengers on board had given differing accounts of how many people died during the voyage. “It’s always difficult to get the true story,” she said. “They are so traumatized.”

The Times obtained the number of the mobile phone from Lewa and requested information on the location of the phone from the Thai service provider, DTAC, a subsidiary of a Norwegian telecommunications company. The company initially declined, citing privacy concerns.

The Times then gave the number to Veerapong, the navy officer, and asked that he make the same request. An hour later, this morning, the company provided the location of the cellular transmission tower that had handled the last call made from the phone. The Thai Navy tracked down fishermen in the area that had seen the migrants and sent a vessel. A speedboat carrying journalists from The Times and the BBC arrived about 15 minutes before the Thai navy vessel.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has asked regional governments to conduct search and rescue operations. “It’s a potential humanitarian disaster,” said Jeffrey Savage, a senior protection officer with the agency.

The boat here flew a tattered black flag on a makeshift bamboo mast with the words, in English, “We are Myanmar Rohingya.”

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group that has faced violent attacks by radical Buddhists in Myanmar and official discrimination by the government, which does not consider them citizens. More than 1 million Rohingya live in Myanmar, and more than 100,000 have fled in recent years.

Malaysia also turned away a boat with about 500 people on board that arrived yesterday off the coast of Penang.

“What do you expect us to do?” Deputy Home Minister Datuk Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told The Associated Press. “We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this. We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here.” — The New York Times

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