Manan Vatsyayana / AFP / Getty Images

Malaysian official: 'They are not welcome here'

Malaysia has turned away two boats with more than 800 Rohingya and Bangladeshis

Thousands of Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis abandoned at sea had nowhere to turn Thursday as Malaysia turned away two boats crammed with more than 800 migrants, saying it could not afford to keep being nice.

Indonesia and Thailand also appeared unwilling to provide refuge to men, women and children, despite appeals by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, international aid agencies and rights activists, who warned lives were at risk.

Fearing arrests, captains tied to trafficking networks have in recent days abandoned ships in the busy Malacca Strait and surrounding waters, leaving behind their human cargo, in many cases with little food or water, according to survivors.

Around 1,600 have been rescued, but an estimated 6,000 remain stranded at sea.

Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi said about 500 people on board a boat found Wednesday off the coast of northern Penang state -- three days after more than a thousand refugees landed on nearby Langkawi island -- were given provisions and then sent on their way.

"What do you expect us to do?" he 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 said.

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.

"We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here," he said.

Indonesia, which has taken 600 such refugees, turned a boat away earlier this week. But a foreign ministry spokesman denied Wednesday it had a "push back" policy, saying the vessel strayed into its waters on accident. Arrmanatha Nasir told reporters the migrants were looking for neighboring Malaysia.

"We have to help refugees who need assistance and direct them to where they want to go," he said. "It goes against our principle to chase away refugee boats that enter our territory."

Southeast Asia, which for years tried to quietly ignore the plight of Myanmar's 1.3 million Rohingya, now finds itself caught in a spiraling humanitarian crisis that in many ways it helped create.

But no governments in the region appear willing to take them in, fearing that accepting a few would result in an unstoppable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.

Wan Junaidi said Southeast Asian governments must do more to press Myanmar 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.

Malaysia, which is not a signatory of international conventions on refugees, is host to more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the majority who are from Myanmar. More than 45,000 of them are Rohingyas, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

In the last three years, more than 100,000 members of the Muslim minority have boarded ships, fleeing persecution, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have worsened the Rohingya crisis "with cold-hearted policies to push back this new wave of boat people that puts thousands of lives at risk."

"The Thai, Malaysia and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping pong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats," he said in a statement Thursday.

The United Nations has pleaded for countries in the region to keep their arms open and help rescue those stranded. Several navies said they were scouring the seas.

Wan Junaidi said the home ministry will soon call for a meeting with diplomats from Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as from developed countries, including the United States and the European Union to urge them to take in U.N. refugees in Malaysia waiting to resettle to third countries.

"We want to tell the source countries that they must tell their people back home that Malaysia cannot welcome them," he said.

"We also want to tell other countries not to blame Malaysia while they just talk to the gallery. Open your doors and take these refugees in. Don't be selective," he said.

The Associated Press

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