Malaysia and Indonesia both indicated Tuesday that they would refuse entry to desperate Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants, as the plight worsened for thousands left stranded at sea.
The response from the two Southeast Asian nations follows the arrival on their shores of hundreds of migrants abandoned at sea by smugglers in the past two days.
But with an estimated 6,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar still trapped in crowded, wooden boats, the move could further endanger the lives of those fleeing persecution.
Malaysian Marine northern commander Tan Kok Kwee said Tuesday that waters around Langkawi island, where several vessels have landed in recent 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.”
A spokesperson for the Indonesian military told Al Jazeera his country would do likewise.
The comments come as observers say the plight of those abandoned at sea has become desperate.
Of particular concern, one activist said, was a boat carry an estimated 350 Rohingya that subsequently sent out a distress call on Tuesday, asking to be rescued.
Chris Lewa, director of the nonprofit Arakan Project, which has been monitoring the movement of fleeing Rohingya for more than a decade, says she spoke by phone with one of the migrants on board the Thai vessel.
“They asked to be urgently rescued,” she said, adding there were an estimated 350 people on board, 50 of them women.
“They are not sure exactly where they are, possibly near Langkawi,” Lewa said, of the Malaysian resort island that has been the drop-off point in recent days for more than 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis. “They say they can see shore.”
Worried that boats will start washing to shore with dead bodies, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States and several other foreign governments and international organizations have held emergency meetings.
“These are people in desperate straits,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, calling on governments to band together to help those still stranded at sea, some for two months or longer. “Time is not on their side.”
The Rohingya, who are Muslim, have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which considers them illegal settlers from Bangladesh even though their families have lived there for generations.
Attacks on members of the religious minority, numbering at around 1.3 million, have in the past three years left up to 280 people dead and forced 140,000 others from their homes. They now live under apartheid-like conditions in crowded camps just outside the Rakhine state capital, Sittwe, where they have little access to school or adequate health care, according to rights groups.
The conditions at home — and lack of job opportunities — have sparked one of the biggest exoduses by boat since the Vietnam War.
Lewa estimates more than 100,000 men, women and children have boarded ships since mid-2012.
Most are trying to reach Malaysia, but recent regional crackdowns on human trafficking networks have sent brokers and agents into hiding, making it impossible for migrants to disembark — in some cases even after family members have paid $2,000 or more for their release, she said.
Lewa believes up to 6,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis are still on small and large boats in the Malacca Strait and nearby international waters.
Tightly confined, and with limited access to food and clean water, their health is deteriorating, she said, adding that dozens of deaths have been reported.
“I'm very concerned about smugglers abandoning boatloads at sea,” said Lewa.
In the last two days, 1,600 Rohingya have washed to shore in two Southeast Asian countries.
The tactics of brokers and agents started changing in November as authorities began tightening 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 packed 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.
Up until recently, their first stop was Thailand, where they were held in open pens in jungle camps as brokers collected “ransoms” from relatives. Thailand has long been considered a regional hub for human traffickers.
Those who could pay continued onward, usually to Malaysia or other countries. Those who couldn't were sometimes beaten, killed or left to die.
Since May 1, police have unearthed two dozen bodies from shallow graves in the mountains of southern Thailand, the apparent victims of smuggling rings, they say.
Thai authorities have since arrested dozens of people, including a powerful mayor and a man named Soe Naing, otherwise known as Anwar, who was accused of being one of the trafficking kingpins in southern Thailand. More than 50 police officers are also under investigation.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press