Thailand - IOM has released USD 1 million to launch operations to help migrants left in a desperate situation by people smugglers in Southeast Asia.
The release of funds from IOM’s Migration Emergency Funding Mechanism will allow expanded relief efforts for migrants currently ashore, and to assist the estimated 6,000 stranded at sea in at least six boats off Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
The Organization has issued a plea to the international community to take urgent action to save the lives of the thousands of marooned migrants and asylum seekers. Deaths have already been reported aboard some vessels and there are fears that the migrants currently at sea will not survive much longer if they run out of food and water.
One boat is agonizingly close to land, and can be reached intermittently via mobile phone. But they have been abandoned by smugglers who are no longer able to land them in Thailand as per past practices due to that country’s recent crackdown on people smugglers. Thousands more are on the open ocean, according to IOM’s information.
“This is nothing short of a vicious crime by smugglers against extremely vulnerable people,” said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing. “We cannot stand by and watch as men, women and children die agonizingly of thirst, mere kilometers from safety.”
With the world’s attention focused on the unfolding crisis in the Mediterranean for the past three months, this second deadly situation involving the mistreatment of migrants has emerged in the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca.
“Everyone, including governments, commercial shipping and international organizations, must make this an absolute priority,” he said, while announcing the release of an initial allocation of USD 1 million from IOM’s emergency funds to help the migrants.
“I appeal to the governments, and all who can help, to find these boats and let the migrants land and get medical treatment. We will assist you in resolving the longer-term problems of accommodation, transport home for some, and other options, but in the name of humanity, let these migrants land,” Ambassador Swing added.
Some 6,000 migrants – from Myanmar and Bangladesh – all the victims of people smuggling rings – have been at sea since early March on overcrowded fishing boats. Smugglers aboard one boat yesterday dissuaded the migrants from coming ashore in Thailand, where the government had offered to accept them on humanitarian grounds.
“The smugglers told them not to get off and that they should continue to try to reach Malaysia,” said IOM Thailand Chief of Mission Jeffrey Labovitz, who is leading IOM’s efforts to resolve the crisis. “The government was prepared to allow the boat to land on humanitarian grounds, but tragically the migrants were persuaded to stay offshore. Ten migrants have reportedly already died on this boat.”
Elsewhere in the region IOM rushed a medical team to Aceh in northern Indonesia on Sunday when news broke that a boat carrying 582 migrants had landed. The team was sent to assist the authorities with food, medical care, shelter and other urgent assistance.
The Malaysian government also received migrants earlier this week, but as far as IOM can ascertain, none have since come ashore in any of the countries concerned.
IOM is also currently providing health and food assistance to over 60 migrants who became lost in the forests of southern Thailand when abandoned by smugglers. An additional 178 remain in Thai custody and are undergoing screening to determine their status. Further north, 74 migrants were found starving and thirsty, having also been abandoned by smugglers.
IOM Thailand is coordinating with the Thai authorities to ensure that their humanitarian needs are met. In Bangladesh, IOM today provided health assistance to 116 migrants who abandoned their journey and were able to return to shore.
In the past three years, an estimated 160,000 migrants from the coasts of Myanmar and Bangladesh were smuggled by boat to Thailand before being brought overland to Malaysia. The discovery in early May of mass graves in several smuggling camps spurred a crackdown in Thailand and subsequently Malaysia.
At this stage, the smuggling route has been completely disrupted and the boats have stopped coming.
To date, over 1,500 migrants have managed to disembark in Indonesia and Malaysia and are receiving crucial humanitarian assistance. Another 400 returned to Myanmar and Bangladesh. Thousands have not been as lucky, and remain in limbo floating on the high seas.