Migrants still at sea as Thai navy mulls ending patrol
Report says trafficking boats carrying nearly 500 people -- mostly Muslim Rohingya -- remain in int'l waters near southern Thai town

The Thai navy has changed course after earlier stating that a navy ship being used as a command and control center to aid victims of the Southeast Asian boat people crisis would end its mission Wednesday.

Navy Captain Benjamaporn Wongnakornsawang has since said that the HTMS Ang-Thong, complemented by search helicopters and emergency response units, will instead continue its humanitarian mission in the Andaman Sea while the government mulls its role.

"We will continue the mission until ordered otherwise," Wongnakornsawang told Anadolu Agency on Wednesday.

The navy had previously stated that the Ang-Thong was reaching the end of its two week mission.

Wongnakornsawang sought to clarify that government meetings will now determine the appropriate response and whether to end the deployment.

Meanwhile, continued reports claim that migrants are still adrift at sea.

The Malay Mail reported Wednesday that several boats operated by human trafficking syndicates carrying Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis remain in international waters near the Thai region of Satun.

It said that they are waiting to see if they can enter Malaysia or should sail on to Indonesia.

Since a tri-nation conference May 20, Thailand has since said it will help, but not harbor, the thousands of boat people who remain at sea since it began to crack down on people traffickers May 1.

Malaysia and Indonesia, meanwhile, have said that they will take the boat people in for one year, ascertain which are asylum seekers and which are economic migrants, and then the international community will find homes for them.

The Mail quoted an unnamed senior officer from the Satun coast guard station on the island of Pulau Puyu as saying it had been monitoring the boats for more than a week.

Satun is one of the southern provinces of Thailand. Neighboring provinces are Trang, Phatthalung, and Songkhla -- where a trafficking camp containing more than 30 bodies was discovered near the Malaysia-Thailand border May 1 in shallow graves.

To its south, Satun also borders Perlis of Malaysia.

"We are monitoring them as we cannot react unless they cross into our waters at which time we will alert the Navy and marine police to take immediate action," he told the Mail.

He said he understood that the boats -- each carrying between 300 and 500 people -- would have sailed from Myanmar and Bangladesh before news of the crackdown by the authorities reached the remote villages.

Many of the boat's Rohingya Muslim occupants have fled Myanmar's western Rakhine state alleging brutality by the country’s military leaders.

Some of the Rohingya have left refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazar region, while others claim to have been forced onto the boats by people smugglers -- ransoms then demanded from their families back home for their safe passage.

The Rohingya are joined by economic migrants from Bangladesh, desperate to reach the employment opportunities they believe to be waiting for them in regional powerhouse Malaysia.

The Mail quoted an unnamed 42-year-old Myanmar national as saying that the boats had taken between 30-40 days to get from Myanmar to Satun.

"There were five or six boats at a time berthed in Pulau Puyu, until the crackdown by Thai authorities early last month following the discovery of the mass graves at the Malaysia-Thailand border," he added.

Imran Gafur, a 45-year-old Thai fisherman, told the Mail that until 10 days ago four boatloads of migrants were anchored near the island until authorities removed them.

"Boats carrying Myanmar and Bangladesh migrants have been landing here for a decade and we thought they wanted to go to Malaysia. The villagers were not aware that syndicates were taking money to transport them, until the exposure of mass graves recently," he said.

"The villagers sympathise with the migrants. Now we realise that they are innocent people who were tortured, abused and the women were gang-raped by agents. We do not condone cruelty against another human being."

Since the crisis began, around 5,600 Muslim Rohingya have disembarked in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, Chris Lewa of the Arakan Project has told Anadolu Agency.

However, she says it is unclear how many more might still be out at sea.

A mission by the United States government to search for remaining migrants has so far been unable to find more.

Since 2012, Rohingya -- who the United Nations consider to be the world’s most persecuted ethnic minority -- have been fleeing Myanmar in droves, in fear of violence that some human rights groups consider to be state-sponsored.

Rights groups estimate that as many as 10 percent of the million strong ethnic group have fled the country in search of better opportunities in Muslim majority Indonesia and Malaysia.

Last Modified: 2015-06-11 08:38:18
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