BANGKOK (AP) — Amnesty International is urging Southeast Asian nations to avoid a repeat of the refugee-boat crisis that left thousands stranded at sea earlier this year, saying in a new report that human traffickers kept asylum-seekers in "hellish" conditions, beat them severely and even killed them if families failed to pay ransoms.
The report released Wednesday is based on interviews with more than 100 Rohingya Muslim refugees who reached Indonesia through perilous boat journeys.
"The daily physical abuse faced by Rohingya who were trapped on boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea is almost too horrific to put into words ... Even children were not spared these abuses," said Anna Shea, a refugee researcher at Amnesty.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar by boat to escape persecution by the country's Buddhist majority. Their plight became an international crisis in May when thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis were found packed in rickety boats with little food or water, abandoned by their smugglers. Some were turned away by the governments of Thailand and Malaysia, while some managed to make it to shore in Indonesia.
"The shocking truth is that those we spoke to are the 'lucky' ones who made it to shore — countless others perished at sea or were trafficked into forced labor situations," said Shea.
The mostly Bengali-speaking ethnic Rohingya are Muslims who have lived in Myanmar's western state of Rakhine as a minority for generations but are not recognized by the government as citizens. Instead, they are branded as foreigners with no rights, and face constant discrimination from the government as well as Buddhist nationalists. Clashes between the two communities have left more than 200 dead, mostly Rohingya. Another 140,000 were driven from their homes by Buddhist mobs. Displaced Rohingya who have not fled the country live in squalid camps.
With the monsoon ending and a new "sailing season" already underway, thousands more Rohingya could be taking to boats, Amnesty said, as it urged regional governments to urgently step up their response.
"Without cooperation between governments to combat human trafficking, grave human rights abuses will again be perpetrated against some of Southeast Asia's most vulnerable and desperate people," said Shea.
The United Nations estimates at least 370 Rohingya died between January and June while trying to flee by boats. Amnesty International says the number is much higher, based on eyewitness accounts of dozens of large refugee boats that set out from Rakhine state, but only five boats that landed in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people remain unaccounted for, and may have died during their journeys or been sold for forced labor, the report said.
It said many refugees claim to have seen crew members kill people when their families failed to pay ransoms. Witnesses told Amnesty some people were shot by the traffickers on the boats while others were thrown overboard, or died of disease, starvation or thirst.
Refugees described how they were kept for months on boats and severely beaten while traffickers contacted their family members, demanding ransoms. One 15-year-old Rohingya girl said the crew called her father, made him listen to her cries while they beat her, and told him to pay them about $1,700, the report said.
Even begging for food or asking to use the toilet was an invitation to be beaten with batons, sometimes for several hours, the report said.
Often, the beatings were methodical. One 15-year-old Rohingya boy said: "In the morning you were hit three times. In the afternoon you were hit three times. At night you were hit nine times," according to the report.
People were forced to sit in cramped positions in overcrowded boats, sometimes for months, the report said. An Indonesian who helped rescue people off the coast of Aceh said the stench on the boat was so bad that rescuers could not board.