LANGKAWI, Malaysia — Thousands of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis abandoned at sea by human traffickers had nowhere to go Thursday, as Malaysia turned away two boats crammed with migrants, and Thailand kept at bay a third boat with hundreds more.
"What do you expect us to do?" Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jafaar said. "We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely but they cannot be flooding our shores like this."
"We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here," he told The Associated Press, just days after about 1,000 refugees landed on the shores of Langkawi, a popular resort island in northern Malaysian near Thailand. Another 600 have arrived surreptitiously in Indonesia.
Southeast Asia, which for years tried to quietly ignore the plight of Myanmar's 1.3 million Rohingya, finds itself caught in a spiraling humanitarian crisis that in many ways it helped create. In the last three years, more than 120,000 members of the Muslim minority, who are intensely persecuted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, have boarded ships to flee to other countries, paying huge sums of money to human traffickers. But in the face of a crackdown by security forces of various countries, the smugglers have been abandoning the ships, leaving the refugees to fend for themselves. An estimated 6,000 remain stranded at sea.
Despite appeals by the U.N. and international aid agencies, no government in the region — Thai, Indonesian or Malaysian — appear willing to take them in, fearing that accepting a few would result in an unstoppable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.
Wan Junaidi said about 500 people on board a boat found Wednesday off the coast of northern Penang state were given provisions and then sent on their way. Another boat carrying about 300 migrants was turned away near Langkawi island overnight, according to two Malaysian officials who declined to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak to the press.
Meanwhile, Thai authorities also spotted a boat with migrants on the sea border between Thailand and Malaysia, Satun province governor Dejrat Simsiri told the AP by phone.
He said Thai boats, including navy and national parks vessels, are now checking out the migrants' boat "to make sure they do not come into Thai waters."
"We are monitoring from afar but it appears that the people are in frail condition ... there are hundreds of them," he said.
Dejrat said Thailand will provide food and fuel, and send them to a "third country" if that's what they want.
"It's unlikely that we will bring them to shore... we will need order from higher officials before we can proceed," he said.
Earlier, Thailand's Foreign Minister Gen. Thanasak Patimaprakorn said his government will not set up an official refugee shelter for the Rohingya people but is willing to provide short-term assistance based on humanitarian principles.
Malaysia, which is not a signatory of international conventions on refugees, is host to more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the majority whom are from Myanmar. More than 45,000 of them are Rohingya, according to the U.N. refugee agency, many more than almost any other country.
But because they have no legal status, job opportunities are limited. They also have little or no access to basic services like education and health care, and are vulnerable to arrests and deportation. A small number is resettled to third countries, again because nobody wants them.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch Asia accused Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia of playing "a three-way game of human ping pong." At the same time, the three countries and other sin Southeast Asia have for years bowed to the wishes of Myanmar at regional conferences, avoiding all discussions of state-sponsored discrimination against the Rohingya.
Denied citizenship by national law, members of the Rohingya minority are effectively stateless. They have limited access to education or adequate health care and cannot move around freely. They have been attacked by the military and chased from their homes and land by extremist Buddhist mobs.
Wan Junaidi, the deputy home minister, said it was time to put pressure on the former pariah-state to address the Rohingya crisis.
"You talk about democracy, but don't treat your citizens like trash, like criminals until they need to run away to our country," he said.
Indonesia denies it had a "push back" policy, saying the Malaysian-bound vessel strayed into its waters by accident.
"This is a grave humanitarian crisis demanding an immediate response," said Matthew Smith, executive director of non-profit human rights group Fortify Rights. "Lives are on the line. Regional governments should act decisively to rescue and protect asylum seekers and trafficking survivors, not drive them back out to sea."
Increasingly over the years, Rohingya boarding boats in the Bay of Bengal have been joined by people from neighboring Bangladeshi, most of them seeking an escape from poverty.
For those fleeing, the first stop until recently was Thailand, where migrants were held in jungle camps until their families could raise hefty ransoms so they could continue onward. Recent security crackdowns forced the smugglers to change tactics, instead holding people on large ships parked offshore.
Initially they were shuttled to shore in groups on smaller boats after their "ransoms" were paid. But as agents and brokers on land got spooked by arrests - not just of traffickers but also police and politicians - they went into hiding.
That created a bottleneck, with migrants stuck on boats for weeks.
Doksone reported from Bangkok, Thailand. Associated Press journalists Robin McDowell in Yangon, Myanmar and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this report.