Sunday 31 May 2015
A boat packed with more than 700 "boat people" seized off Myanmar's coast was stopped on a small island on Saturday, as officials gave mixed signals about its final destination.
Myanmar's navy discovered the boat with 727 migrants off the country's southern coast on Friday, but have since been tight-lipped on the identity of those on board, as well as their fate.
Myo Win, the township administrator of Hainggyi Island, in the country's south, told Reuters the boat was taken to nearby Leik Island and the migrants were kept on board while they were provided with food, water and medical help.
"The boat won't rest at Leik Island tonight... I heard they will be taken to Sittwe or Maungdaw (in Myanmar's Rakhine State), to then be sent to Bangladesh."
Officials had on Friday initially labeled those on the boat "Bengalis" - a term used to refer both to stateless Rohingya from Rakhine state, as well as Bangladeshis. The government later said most of those on board are believed to be from Bangladesh.
The government had initially said it would take the migrants to a navy base on Hainggyi Island, but have since reconsidered their destination, Commander Soe Min, an assistant to Myanmar's navy chief, told Reuters.
"The navy may take them somewhere further north, such as Sittwe in Rakhine State. We're not even sure yet," Soe Min said.
The discovery of the boat on Friday came as Myanmar told a 17-nation meeting in Thailand that it was not to blame for the crisis that has seen more than 4,000 desperate Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants take to the seas across Southeast Asia in the last month.
An additional 2,000 people are believed still adrift after being abandoned by traffickers following a crackdown in Thailand.
The boat was found in the Andaman Sea on Friday with 608 women, 74 women and 45 children on board, according to Myanmar's Ministry of Information.
Those on board told officials they had been at sea in three boats since March, during which at least 50 migrants died, the ministry said on its website. The passengers were later abandoned in one boat by traffickers, it said.
Myanmar has come under heavy criticism for discrimination against the Rohingya. Most of the 1.1 million Rohingya in Myanmar are stateless and live in apartheid-like conditions.
Almost 140,000 were displaced in deadly clashes with Buddhists in Rakhine State in 2012.
Wednesday 27 May 2015
Malaysian police forensic teams, digging with hoes and shovels, on Tuesday began pulling out bodies from shallow graves found in abandoned jungle camps where an inter-governmental body said hundreds of victims of human traffickers may be buried.
The Malaysian government said it was investigating whether local forestry officials were involved with the people-smuggling gangs believed responsible for nearly 140 such graves discovered around grim camps along the border with Thailand.
The dense forests of southern Thailand and northern Malaysia have been a major stop-off point for smugglers bringing people to Southeast Asia by boat from Myanmar, most of them Rohingya Muslims who say they are fleeing persecution, and Bangladesh.
Authorities took a group of journalists to one of the camps, nestled in a gully in thick jungle up a steep, well-worn path about an hour's walk from the nearest road, where a Reuters witness saw the first body removed on Tuesday afternoon.
Extent of trafficking continues to grow:
Malaysian police said on Monday they had found 139 graves, some containing more than one body, around 28 camps scattered along a 50-km (30-mile) stretch of the border in the northern state of Perlis.
Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), told a news briefing in Geneva that the body's representative in the region "predicts hundreds more [bodies] will be found in the days to come".
The grisly discoveries in Malaysia followed the uncovering of similar graves on the Thai side of the border at the beginning of May, which helped trigger a regional crisis. The find led to a crackdown on the camps by Thai authorities, after which traffickers abandoned thousands of migrants in overloaded boats in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
"We don't know if there is a link between the Thai camps and Malaysia camps," Phuttichart Ekachan, deputy chief of Thailand's Provincial Police Region 9, told Reuters.
"It is possible that because of the Thai crackdown some of the camps moved and some of them (migrants) then walked over or escaped to the Thai side. It is possible but it isn't something we have been able to confirm."
Thousands of Rohingya Muslims are ferried by traffickers through southern Thailand each year, and in recent years it has been common for them to be held in remote camps along the border with Malaysia until a ransom is paid for their freedom.
The IOM's Millman said the largest camp was believed to have had a capacity of up to 1,000 people.
"If an individual's family did not pay, those staying long in the camps were tortured, beaten and deprived of food," he said.
State news agency Bernama quoted Malaysia's police chief, Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar, as saying that the camps were thought to have been occupied since 2013, and two were "only abandoned between two and three weeks ago".
Khalid told reporters on Monday that police had been "shocked by the cruelty" of the camps, where he said there were signs of torture.
On Tuesday, the United States said a U.S. Navy P-8 aircraft began conducting maritime surveillance flights at the weekend to locate and mark the positions of boats that could be carrying migrants.
U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told a news briefing that the flights were made possible by the support of the Malaysian government and the United States was ready to conduct additional flights as necessary to help provide support to regional governments.
Malaysian PM pleads for international support over migrant grave discovery: