Thailand says it will prosecute nearly 200 Rohingya migrants rounded up in a recent human trafficking crackdown in the south of the country.
The news came as a boat carrying scores of migrants was discovered in Thai waters Thursday afternoon off the southern island of Koh Lipe. Early reports suggested that as many as 350 people on the boat were being kept alive by food and water passed to them from fishing boats.
Over a thousand Rohingya migrants have come ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia in the past week, with more boats being turned away after being given fuel and food. Most of the migrants come from Burma and Bangladesh.
Thousands are believed to be still at sea off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. An International Organization for Migration (IOM) report says that number could be as high as 8,000.
The crackdown in Thailand follows the discovery of dozens of graves in jungle trafficking camps near the Malaysia border earlier this month. More migrants were rescued and hospitalized after smugglers fled.
“Police have already indicted 187 on illegal entry charges… so those cases are being processed now,” deputy national police chief Aek Angsananont told AFP from southern Thailand. Sixty-three others could also face prosecution.
It remains to be seen how Thai authorities will deal with the migrant boat discovered off its coast Thursday. In the past it has been accused of pushing migrant boats back out to sea while the military has been accused of involvement in human trafficking.
The plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority, who are persecuted by western Burma’s Buddhist majority, has been well documented in recent years. This months events, however, have brought the humanitarian crisis into sharp focus.
Malaysia’s marine northern commander Tan Kok Kwee said this week that waters around Langkawi island where several wooden vessels have landed in the past three days will be patrolled 24 hours a day by a total of eight ships.
Tan said, “We won’t let any foreign boats come in.” If the boats are seaworthy, he said the navy would “give them provisions and send them away.”
He said they would carry out a rescue only if the boat was sinking. It turned away a boat carrying more than 500 migrants Wednesday after giving them food and water.
Human rights groups have called on the governments of the countries where the migrants are coming ashore to stop turning them away.
“The Myanmarese [Burmese] government has created this crisis with their continued persecution of the Rohingya,” deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said Thursday.
“Other governments should urge the three governments to work together to rescue these desperate people and offer them humanitarian aid, help in processing claims and resettlement places for those in need of international protection.”
Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has called a regional meeting for May 29 to discuss the situation.
The ongoing crisis is seen as a major embarrassment for the ASEAN nations ahead of the planned establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) this year.