The decision by smugglers to abandon their human cargo comes after crackdowns on their activities by authorities in Thailand and Malaysia. Thai police arrested several suspected traffickers following the discovery of mass graves containing at least 30 bodies at a camp in Thailand’s Sadao District near the Malaysian border two weeks ago.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that 25,000 people left Myanmar and Bangladesh on smugglers’ boats in the first quarter of 2015, around double the number who left during the same period last year. Most are Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority in Myanmar, who hope to reach Malaysia to join relatives.
Many never make it. Three hundred are thought to have died at sea between January and April, while an unknown number have perished at traffickers’ camps in Thailand, where they are beaten and tortured until their relatives can pay enough money to secure their release.
About 1,100 of the migrants and asylum-seekers abandoned at sea at the weekend made it to the shores of Langkawi Island in Malaysia on Sunday night, and several hundred more came ashore in Aceh, Indonesia. Both the Malaysian and the Indonesian authorities have since made statements that they will not allow any more boats to land.
On Tuesday, Tan Kok Kwee, first admiral of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, said that “foreign boats” would be given provisions and sent away. The day before, Indonesia’s navy turned away a boat packed with hundreds of migrants after giving them food and water and directions to Malaysia.
It is unclear which, if any, of the Southeast Asian nations is prepared to launch efforts to locate other abandoned boats and their increasingly desperate passengers.
UNHCR has appealed to countries in the region to step up search-and-rescue missions and keep their borders open.
“It’s alarming to see these statements on boat pushbacks from Indonesia and Malaysia. We’re trying to clarify if they are one-off statements or changes in policy,” said Vivian Tan, UNHCR’s regional spokesperson based in Bangkok.
“Instead of shifting the problem elsewhere and endangering lives in the process, countries should work together to share the responsibility of disembarking people stuck on smugglers’ boats. The first priority should really be on saving lives,” she told IRIN in an email.
At least two boats are known to be floating somewhere off the coast of Thailand or Malaysia carrying about 750 passengers between them, according to Chris Lewa, director of an NGO called The Arakan Project, which monitors the movements of Rohingya refugees between Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia.
“They’re using the Thai mobile network and they said they can see islands around them, and at night they can see lights. So they shouldn’t be that far from the coast, but the problem is locating them.”
Lewa added that they had tried to flag down several passing fishing boats but the boats had failed to stop and assist them. The Thai navy told the NGO they were searching the area, but had not yet found the boat.
According to human rights group Fortify Rights, Thailand has long had a policy of pushing back boats containing asylum-seekers, including potential survivors of human trafficking. The so-called “help-on” policy involves providing the boats with minimal food and water and then directing them towards Malaysia.
“The answer to this problem is not to close borders. Refugees have a right to seek asylum and governments need to recognise that right,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights.
Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, but Fortify Rights argues that the Convention has become part of customary international law and is therefore binding on all states.
In terms of the abandoned boats, said Smith, “there needs to be a coordinated regional response. Search-and-rescue operations are not beyond the capacity of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).”
Smith noted that several more boats known to have departed from Myanmar and Bangladesh in recent days may face the same fate.
Thousands of Rohingya asylum-seekers continue to board boats from the Bay of Bengal despite the well-known risks. Push factors include a history of restricted movement, de facto statelessness and squalid conditions at camps for those internally displaced in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, where 140,000 Rohingya have lived since communal violence in 2012 destroyed their homes.
Other countries in the region have been reluctant to accept the Rohingya refugees without commitments from Myanmar to deal with the root causes of their exodus.