At least 2,000 refugees fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh, including hundreds of women and children, have been rescued off the coast of Indonesia over the past 24 hours, after smugglers abandoned them at sea without food or water.
The desperate scene, similar to the migrant smuggling ships from Libya that have foundered off the coasts of Italy and Greece in recent weeks, is evidence of the plight of the Muslim Rohingya people, who have been forced to flee Myanmar because of ethnic violence and repression.
Last week, an even grislier discovery was made: Thai authorities found a mass grave with the bodies of dozens of Rohingya, who were being held in camps near the Malaysian border by smugglers who kidnap refugees for ransom, and also force them to work in Thailand’s notoriously brutal seafood industry. Human rights groups told the Guardian that they fear there may be dozens of mass graves filled with hundreds of Rohingya corpses near the Thailand-Malaysia border.
Human rights groups say the discovery of the mass graves may have provoked the smugglers to abandon the migrants at sea, after Thailand moved to crack down on smugglers.
There are approximately 1.3 million Rohingya living in Myanmar, where they are derided by the Buddhist majority as interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh. In a humanitarian crisis that has been brewing since 2012, violent clashes, often instigated by militant Buddhist monks, have sent many Rohingya flee to prison-like internal-displacement camps. More than 100,000 have attempted to flee to Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia, but first they must get through Thailand, where government officials are often complicit in their exploitation.
The migrants rescued by Indonesian fishing boats yesterday are believed to have departed from Thailand about a week ago.
“We are hearing the passengers were left close to shore and were told that this is Malaysia and you got what you paid for, “Mark Getchell of the International Organization for Migration told Reuters. “They came onshore and found out it wasn’t Malaysia.”
The United Nations estimates that about 300 Rohingya migrants have died at sea this year from starvation, dehydration, and abuse by smugglers. This is a relatively small number compared with the number of refugees who are known to have perished crossing the Mediterranean Sea this year, but one that may hide an ever-worsening migration crisis in southeast Asia.