Aboard 'floating coffins'
Crisis intensifies as more Rohingya refugees die at sea. But countries in region now starting to help
They wait in rickety boats for a trip to the promised land. But they are doomed even before they leave Myanmar waters.
The United Nations (UN) said these people, who are minority Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants, are still trapped in boats that have yet to leave the Bay of Bengal.
A spokesman for UN refugee agency UNHCR, Ms Vivian Tan, told AFP it had received reports that at least 2,000 migrants had been "stranded on at least five boats near the Myanmar-Bangladesh coasts for more than 40 days".
Reports of "food shortages, dehydration and violence" were a cause of "great concern", she said.
Survivors say dozens have died and an increasingly alarmed UN has warned that the boats could turn into "floating coffins".
Ms Tan said the migrants should be allowed to disembark.
But the boats are controlled by traffickers who will let migrants return to land only after they have paid between US$180 ($240) and US$270 each, she said.
Myanmar, which is accused of prosecuting the Rohingya Muslims, a minority, offered a glimmer of hope yesterday.
Its foreign ministry said in a statement in state media that it "shares concerns" of the international community and was "ready to provide humanitarian assistance to anyone who suffered in the sea".
Myanmar's treatment of the impoverished and marginalised Rohingya community is widely seen as one of the root causes of the surge in migrants making the perilous journey across the Bay of Bengal.
For those already in South-east Asian waters, there was good news.
Malaysia and Indonesia said yesterday they would no longer turn away migrant vessels, provided the refugees could be resettled or repatriated within a year, reported Reuters.
NO SHOOING AWAY
"The towing and the shooing (away of boats) is not going to happen," Malaysian foreign minister Anifah Aman said at a joint press conference with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi after talks on the issue.
"We also agreed to offer them temporary shelter provided that the resettlement and repatriation process will be done in one year by the international community."
The talks in Malaysia had included Thai foreign minister Tanasak Patimapragorn, but he was not present for the press conference.
Mr Anifah said the Thai side refrained from joining in the offer, saying it had to first refer to whether the move would be allowed by "domestic laws" in Thailand.
He said: "In the meantime, Malaysia and Indonesia invite other countries in the region to join in this endeavour."
The offer of shelter was applicable only to those people now on the seas, Mr Anifah said. Around 3,000 such migrants have swum to shore or been rescued off Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand over the past week after a Thai crackdown prompted some people-traffickers to abandon their human cargo at sea.
88,000 Number of people who have made the trip since last year
25,000 Of this, number who arrived in first quarter of this year
1,000 Number who died
WHY: ABUSE BY TRAFFICKERS, LACK OF FOOD AND WATER, BAD WEATHER
SOURCE: UN REFUGEE AGENCY UNHCR.
In the Bay of Bengal, migrants and refugees are fed only white rice and are subjected to violence, including sexual violence. Women are raped. Children are separated from their families and abused. Men are beaten and thrown overboard.
- United Nations refugee agency UNHCR