About 1,600 Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees have landed in Malaysia and Indonesia in the last two days, apparently after human traffickers abandoned their virtual prison ships and left them to fend for themselves, officials said Monday.
One group of about 600 people arrived in the Indonesian coastal province of Aceh on four boats on Sunday, and at about the same time a total of 1,018 landed in three boats on the northern Malaysian resort island of Langkawi.
Langkawi island deputy police chief Jamil Ahmed said that the group picked up Sunday was 865 men, 52 children and 101 women. Police found a big wooden boat trapped in the sand in shallow waters at a beach in Langkawi, capable of holding 350 people, he said. This meant there were at least two other boats but they have not been located yet, he said.
In a statement, Malaysia's marine police said all those who had arrived illegally had been arrested and sent to detention centers.
Jamil said a Bangladeshi man told police that the boat handlers gave them directions on where to go once they reached the Malaysian shores, and escaped in other boats. The migrant said they have not eaten for three days, Jamil said, adding that most of them were weak and thin.
"We believe there may be more boats coming," Jamil said.
When the four ships neared Indonesia's shores early Sunday, some passengers jumped into the water and swam, said Steve Hamilton, of the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital.
They have been taken to a sports stadium in Lhoksukon, the capital of North Aceh District, to be cared for and questioned, said Lt. Col. Achmadi, chief of police in the area, who uses only one name.
Sick and weak after more than two months at sea, some were getting medical attention.
The overcrowded boats, which were stranded off Indonesia were carrying nearly 100 women and dozens of children among the refugees. The boats were towed to shore by fishermen after running out of fuel.
The migrants left Thailand about seven days ago and some died during the journey, authorities said.
Of those rescued, around 50 were taken to the hospital. “In general, they were suffering from starvation and many were very thin,” said North Aceh police chief Achmadi, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.
The group may have been trying to reach Malaysia, said Steve Hamilton deputy chief of mission at the International Organization for Migration in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital.
Hamilton said three of the wooden boats that arrived in Aceh on Sunday had been abandoned by the smugglers and the fourth ran out of fuel.
They had apparently been traveling together from Rakhine State in Burma.
Achmadi said that so far 573 Rohingya and Bangladeshis have been registered, including 98 women and 51 children. He said the number would likely climb because passengers were scattered along the coast after reaching shore, seeking refuge with residents or at mosques.
Rohingya Muslims have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Myanmar. In December, the United Nations called for “full citizenship” for Rohingya.
Attacks on the religious minority by Buddhist mobs in the last three years have caused 100,000 people to flee, according to Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade.
Lewa confirmed that nearly 500 Rohingya landed in Indonesia early Sunday, with some apparently weak due to lack of food and water.
In the past, their first stop has in Thailand, where the Rohingya waited in jungle camps while brokers collected hefty “ransoms” of $2,000 or more from family members before allowing them to continue their journeys onward.
Last week, Thai authorities found bodies of six Rohingya migrants from Myanmar at a rubber plantation in Songkhla province, near the border with Malaysia, less than 3 miles from a site where 26 corpses were found.
Thailand has long been considered a regional hub for human traffickers.
The tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities began to tighten security on land — a move apparently aimed at appeasing the U.S. government as it prepares to release its annual Trafficking in Persons report next month. Last year, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.
Rohingya packing into ships in the Bay of Bengal have been joined in growing numbers by Bangladeshis fleeing poverty and hoping to find a better life elsewhere.
Rohingya are now being held on boats at sea, Lewa said, estimating that 7,000 to 8,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants are currently parked in the Malacca Straits, unable to disembark because of crackdowns on trafficking networks in Thailand and Malaysia, their primary destinations.
Al Jazeera with wire services