May 15, 2015 / 2:53 PM / in 3 years

Asia's new boat people: beaten, abandoned and pushed back to sea

LHOKSUKON, Indonesia (Reuters) - Initially, it was a relief for the hundreds of migrants packed into a rickety fishing vessel when, in the dead of night, their captain and his crew took off in a speedboat and abandoned them in the sea between South and Southeast Asia.

Mohammad Husein, a 29-year-old migrant from the Rohingya community in Myanmar who arrived in Indonesia with 600 others on a boat, poses for a photograph inside a temporary shelter in Lhoksukon, Indonesia's Aceh Province May 13, 2015. REUTERS/Roni Bintang

For three weeks, they had been abused by the Thai men, who thrashed them with gun butts and scalded them with hot water.

Mohammad Husein, a Rohingya Muslim who had left Myanmar in mid-April brimming with hope for a better future, showed an ugly gash on his head. There was a swelling on one of Husein’s shins the size of a ping-pong ball, where one of the crew members had struck him with a metal bar when he asked to relieve himself.

But after their tormentors had gone, things only got worse.

The roughly 600 men, women and children from Myanmar and Bangladesh - part of a new wave of Asian ‘boat people’ - meandered for two days around the Bay of Bengal’s southeastern corner on a boat designed for just a third of their number, watching for the Malaysian coast to come into sight.

“We were sent out to sea in the middle of the night but we had no food or water and we didn’t know where were going or how to get to Malaysia. So we just kept going,” said Husein.

By last Sunday, they had run out of fuel and their wooden boat drifted into Indonesian waters on the western side of the Malacca Strait, where it was towed ashore by local fishermen.

The journeys of uncounted others who set out in recent weeks, eager to leave poverty and persecution behind them, have not ended so fortunately.

Up to 8,000 people were abandoned in their floating prisons after Thailand launched a crackdown on the people smuggling network that brings out migrants from impoverished Bangladesh and Myanmar and sends them across the border to Malaysia.

Over the past week, nearly 2,500 have drifted onto the shores of Malaysia and Indonesia.

There is mounting concern, however, that boats still out at sea will be pushed back by the region’s navies, much as Vietnamese boatpeople were repulsed at the end of the 1970s as Southeast Asian nations feared a flood of refugees.

Unlike the European Union, whose members are working together to deal with a tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, there have been few signs that Southeast Asian nations are cooperating to find solutions.

WEAK AND DYING

“Please, you must help us,” Muhammad Solim said on Monday by mobile phone from a boat he said had been bobbing off the coast of southern Thailand for more than a week, with 350 Rohingya migrants on board. Food had run out and they had little water left.

“People are weak and starting to die. Our engine is broken,” Solim told a Reuters correspondent, who had obtained his number from a Kuala Lumpur-based Rohingya activist.

According to tracking for Reuters by a private intelligence firm, which declined to be named because of sensitivities around the tracing of phones by non-government bodies, the boat was at that time somewhere within mobile phone range of Koh Lipe, a resort island in Thailand’s south.

Contacted two days later, Solim said that desperation had swept through the passengers, and about 10 of them had jumped into the sea to try and swim to fishing boats in the distance. He did not say if they had made it or perished.

He could not be reached again after Wednesday evening.

The Thai navy towed a boat that was found near Koh Lipe back out to sea on Friday after repairing the engine and supplying those on board with food, medicine, fuel and water. It was not immediately clear if this was the same vessel from which Solim had been speaking.

Rohingya Muslims are deemed second-class citizens in Myanmar. Tens of thousands have fled discrimination and abuse and they are usually joined by people from neighboring Bangladesh fleeing poverty and looking for work.

One day late last month, Umma Khair, a 20-year-old mother of three children who went missing in ethnic violence three years ago, left Myanmar’s Rohingya-dominated state of Rakhine and sailed with a handful of others for six hours through canals and creeks to open sea.

They were then transferred to a larger boat at night and waited for two days while other small groups arrived and came aboard. Many of the migrants were beaten by crew members while they waited and, when they were jammed so tightly together that there was no more room, the vessel set off for Thailand.

“We crouched most of the time, and to sleep we leaned against each other,” said Khair, recounting the journey that ended on the shores of Indonesia’s Aceh province this week.

“If we had to go the toilet we did so in a hole that was lined with polythene and led straight into the sea.”

One fellow passenger, a woman who gave her name as Nurasafa, said that after they had been abandoned and were drifting under the blazing sun, without knowing it towards Indonesia, all she could think to do was pray. “Allah, Allah, Allah, Allah, that’s what I was saying,” she said.

Additional reporting by Aubrey Belford in LANGKAWAI, Malaysia, and by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Andrew R.C. Marshall in BANGKOK; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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