LANGKAWI, Malaysia — Rohingya and Bangladeshis abandoned at sea by traffickers had nowhere to go Thursday as Malaysia turned away two crammed migrant boats and Thailand kept at bay a large vessel with hundreds of hungry people.
“What do you expect us to do?” Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jaafar said. “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.”
Four days earlier, about 1,000 refugees landed on the shores of Langkawi, a resort island in northern Malaysia near Thailand. About 600 have arrived surreptitiously in Indonesia.
Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha also made it clear that his government does not have resources to host refugees.
“If we take them all in, then anyone who wants to come will come freely. I am asking if Thailand will be able to take care of them all. Where will the budget come from?” he said.
Southeast Asia for years tried to quietly ignore the plight of Myanmar’s 1.3 million Rohingya but finds itself caught in a spiraling humanitarian crisis that in many ways it helped create. In the past three years, more than 120,000 members of the Muslim minority, who are intensely persecuted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, have boarded ships to flee to other countries, paying huge sums to human traffickers.
But faced with a regional crackdown, the smugglers have abandoned ships, leaving an estimated 6,000 refugees to fend for themselves, according to reliable aid workers and human rights groups.
“This is a grave humanitarian crisis demanding an immediate response,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of the human rights group Fortify Rights.
Despite appeals by the United Nations and aid groups, no government in the region — Thai, Indonesian or Malaysian — appears willing to take the refugees, fearing that accepting a few will result in an unstoppable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is “alarmed by reports that some countries may be refusing entry to boats carrying refugees and migrants,” a statement from his office said Thursday. It said Ban urged governments in the region to “facilitate timely disembarkation and keep their borders and ports open in order to help the vulnerable people who are in need.”
Wan Junaidi said about 500 people on a boat found Wednesday off northern Penang state were given provisions and sent away. Another boat carrying about 300 migrants was turned away near Langkawi island overnight, said two Malaysian officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment to the news media.
Meanwhile, a boat carrying 300 Rohingya was spotted at the Thai-Malaysia maritime border in Satun province, said Thailand’s deputy government spokesman Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd.
Malaysia, which is not a signatory to international conventions on refugees, is host to more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the majority of whom are from Burma, which is also known as Myanmar. More than 45,000 of them are Rohingya, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Denied citizenship by national law in Burma, members of the Rohingya minority are effectively stateless. They have limited access to education or health care and cannot move freely. They have been attacked by the military and chased from their homes and land by extremist Buddhist mobs in a country that regards them as illegal settlers.
Wan Junaidi, the deputy home minister, said it was time to put pressure on Burma to address the Rohingya crisis.
“You talk about democracy, but don’t treat your citizens like trash, like criminals, until they need to run away to our country,” he said.