KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — About 1,600 Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia in the past day, apparently after human traffickers abandoned their virtual floating prison ships and left the passengers to fend for themselves, officials said Monday.
One group of about 600 people arrived in the Indonesian coastal province of Aceh on four boats Sunday, the same day a total of 1,018 landed in three boats on Malyasia's northern resort island of Langkawi.
Rohingya Muslims have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which considers them illegal settlers from Bangladesh. Attacks on the Rohingya by Buddhist mobs in the last three years have sparked an exodus by sea to nearby countries.
Police found a wooden boat late Sunday night trapped in the sand in shallow waters at a beach in Langkawi that was capable of holding 350 people, said island deputy police chief Jamil Ahmed. Since 865 men, 52 children and 101 women have been counted since then, he said at least two other boats have not been located yet.
Jamil said a Bangladeshi man told police that the boat handlers gave the passengers directions on where to go once they reached Malaysian shores, and escaped in other boats. The migrant said they have not eaten for three days, Jamil said, adding that most of them were weak and thin.
"We believe there may be more boats coming," Jamil said.
When the four ships neared Indonesia's shores early Sunday, some passengers jumped into the water and swam, said Steve Hamilton, of the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital.
They have been taken to a sports stadium in Lhoksukon, the capital of North Aceh District, to be cared for and questioned, said Lt. Col. Achmadi, chief of police in the area, who uses only one name.
Sick and weak after more than two months at sea, some were given medical attention.
"We had nothing to eat," said Rashid Ahmed, a 43-year-old Rohingya man who was on one of the boats. He said he left Myanmar's troubled state of Rakhine with his eldest son three months ago.
An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people are now being held in large and small ships in the Malacca Strait and nearby international waters, said Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade. She added that crackdowns on trafficking syndicates in Thailand and Malaysia have prevented brokers from bringing them to shore.
Some are held even after family members pay for them to be released from the boats.
"I am very concerned about smugglers abandoning boatloads at sea," Lewa said, noting that some people have been stranded for more than two months.
Tightly confined, and with limited access to food and clean water, their health is deteriorating, Lewa said, adding that dozens of deaths have been reported.
Thailand has long been considered a regional hub for human traffickers.
The tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities began to tighten security on land — a move apparently aimed at appeasing the U.S. government before it releases an annual trafficking report next month. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.
Rohingya packing into ships in the Bay of Bengal have been joined in growing numbers by Bangladeshis fleeing poverty and hoping to find a better life elsewhere.
Up until recently, their first stop was Thailand, where they were held in open pens in jungle camps as brokers collected "ransoms" of $2,000 or more from family and friends. Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia or other countries. Those who couldn't were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.
Since May 1, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, the apparent victims, they say, of smuggling rings.
Thai authorities have since arrested dozens of people, including a powerful mayor and a man named, Soe Naing, otherwise known as Anwar, who was accused of being one of the trafficking kingpins in southern Thailand. More than 50 police officers are also under investigation.
Associated Press writers Robin McDowell in Yangon, Myanmar, and Margie Mason and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.