• Rohingya and Bangladesh people board on to a truck as relocated to their new temporary shelter in Aceh province, Indonesia. (Getty Images)
The United Nations refugee agency says it's extremely alarmed at reports that Indonesia and Malaysia may have pushed back boats carrying vulnerable people from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
By
Kristina Kukolja

15 May 2015 - 5:36 AM  UPDATED 15 May 2015 - 11:49 AM

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

The United Nations refugee agency says it's extremely alarmed at reports that Indonesia and Malaysia may have pushed back boats carrying vulnerable people from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The UNHCR says thousands of people are feared stranded aboard unseaworthy boats off south-east Asia, in what it's characterising as the largest exodus of people in the region since the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

Kristina Kukolja has more.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

It's hot and crowded at this local sports hall in Lhoksukon city, temporarily, a home for hundreds of people abandoned off the Indonesian coast, and rescued by local fishermen.

Now they're being moved to another, larger, facility in northern Aceh province.

Conditions are far from ideal and the future less than certain, but for this man -- like many others -- it's still far better than what he leaves behind.

(Translated) "I don't want to go back to my country any more. I'd rather die here."

He's a Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar, and in the view of the United Nations, a member of the one of the most persecuted minorities on the planet.

Stateless and subject to violent attacks, such is their desperation that thousands have in past years boarded boats through the Bay of Bengal.

The first stop, up until recently, was Thailand, where survivors have told of being held for months at a time in squalid jungle camps.

Malaysia is usually the final destination, if their relatives are able to pay ransoms so they can continue the journeys forward.

But the discovery of mass graves thought to contain the remains of asylum seekers near its border with Malaysia has prompted Thailand to act.

The Thai National Police Chief, General Somyot Poompanmoung, says his country will need help to do this.

(Translated) "The Thai government has realised that in solving this problem of illegal Rohingya migrants, Thailand can't do it by itself. It needs to get a co-operation from the country of origin and the destination countries. Thailand is used as a passage."

The UNHCR wants countries in south-east Asia to keep ports and borders open to prevent what it says could become a humanitarian crisis at sea.

But it says Malaysia has reportedly decided to stop the docking of boats carrying people from Myanmar and Bangladesh unless they are unseaworthy and sinking.

The UNHCR says the Indonesian government has admitted to already escorting at least one asylum seeker boat back out to sea.

Jeffrey Labovitz, from the International Organisation for Migration, says it supports the UN call for a regional approach to the crisis.

"Governments need to come together and look hard at the smuggling network and why it's happening and what needs to be done, but immediately, we have people in need, life saving need, so we urge our governments to look at humanitarian concerns and look at safe disembarkation, and then also look at the broader, bigger issues."

Dr Claudia Tazreiter at the University of New South Wales is a contributor to the academic network, the Border Crossing Observatory, which links Australian and international researchers.

She believes Australia's treatment of asylum policy is influencing other countries.

"What we're seeing is a failure of policy, certainly, within the region and I think a lot of that has to be sheeted back to the Australian government and what it's done in the last 18 months or more around the "Stopping the Boats" policy. What we can see is the European approach in recent weeks with the large number of arrivals, but also the longer reaction of the Europeans is a much more measured one that's seeing irregular migration and particularly the movement of what we know often to be asylum seekers, that the European approach is one that really looks much more at the moral responsibility rather than just looking at narrow national self-interest."

Dr Tazreiter sees the clearest example in what's happening now around Indonesia and Malaysia.

"It's been clear for a number of months now with the Indonesian government and the way that the Indonesian government has reacted to Australia's boat pushbacks to Indonesia. And I think we can see this now also from the Malaysian government. Both Indonesia and Malaysia have far higher numbers of irregular migrant arrivals than Australia has or Australia ever has had and I think this is one example of where Australia is not bearing its responsibility in terms of finding regional solutions and also what's called burden sharing within the region."

People smugglers appear to be adapting, too.

Reports indicate asylum seekers are being held at sea for longer, boats abandoned, and even passengers dumped in shallow water closer to coastlines.

The UN says thousands of people are thought to be stranded without food or drinking water and it wants countries in south-east Asia to mount an international maritime search and rescue operation to find them.

Jeffrey Savage is a UNHCR officer in Jakarta.

"What we're hearing from these people is that they've been stuck out at sea for weeks and months and then the smugglers just deserted them. They left them with very little food and water, no fuel for the engines and they've been drifting. It's something that is really a massive humanitarian crisis waiting to happen. We're hoping the international community will step up and try and resolve the problem."

Thailand will hold a meeting of 15 countries later this month to address what it says is the unprecedented increase of irregular migration across the Bay of Bengal.