Migrants believed to be Rohingya rest inside a shelter after being rescued from boats at Lhoksukon in Indonesia's Aceh Province on May 11, 2015.

(Bangkok) – Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia should end their pushbacks of boats with Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants and asylum seekers, and instead bring them ashore and provide desperately needed aid, Human Rights Watch said today.

As many as 8000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis are believed to be stranded in boats in the Andaman Ocean and Malacca Straits without adequate food, water, or sanitation, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported. On May 10, 2015, more than 2000 people landed in Langkawi, Malaysia and Aceh, Indonesia, after weeks at sea, saying they had not eaten in days and suffering from serious health ailments from the cramped and unsanitary conditions on board smugglers’ boats.

“The Burmese government has created this crisis with their continued persecution of the Rohingya,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have made things much worse with cold-hearted policies to push back this new wave of ‘boat people’ that puts thousands of lives at risk. Other governments should urge the three governments to work together to rescue these desperate people and offer them humanitarian aid, help in processing claims, and resettlement places for those in need of international protection.”

Indonesian authorities have admitted to pushing back one boat on May 11 and directing it to Malaysia after providing food and water to those on board. In Malaysia, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar publicly stated that the government will turn back boats and deport those who land ashore. Senior Thai officials have said that the government has adopted a policy of pushing away boats from Thai shores after providing them with fuel, food, and water. Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has called for a regional meeting on May 29 to address the situation. Bangladesh has long pushed back boats carrying Rohingya, forcing them to make the dangerous journey to Southeast Asia.

For several years, people smugglers have been transporting ethnic Rohingya from western Burma’s Arakan State, and an increasing number of Bangladeshis, by boat to Thai shores, where they are moved overland and then held in jungle camps for ransom. Those able to pay the 60,000 to 70,000 baht (US$1800 to 2100) ransom were released and transported to Malaysia, while those unable to pay were held and allegedly abused.

On May 1, a Thai government raid on a jungle camp in Sadao district on the Thai-Malaysia border uncovered 26 bodies, sparking a larger Thai government crackdown on networks smuggling Rohingya and Bangladeshis in Thailand. Since then, Thai military and police officials have found more such camps and exhumed more bodies, and as camp guards have fled, more than 250 survivors have escaped the camps and been detained by the authorities. The crackdown effectively closed the smuggling route through Thailand, leaving boats in transit with Rohingya and Bangladeshis unable to land their human cargo. As a result, smugglers have sought to offload these people in Malaysia or Indonesia, or abandoned their boats and left them to drift. Thai authorities at the most senior levels have long known about these smuggling rings and turned a blind eye.

“The Thai, Malaysian, 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,” Robertson said. “The world will judge these governments by how they treat these most vulnerable men, women, and children.”

The Rohingya are fleeing systematic rights violations by the Burmese government, which effectively prevents them from obtaining citizenship under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law. In October 2012, the Rohingya were subject to attacks across Arakan State that Human Rights Watch determined constituted ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The government has not held anyone accountable for the violence, which destroyed thousands of Rohingya homes and caused massive displacement. More than 130,000 Rohingya have been confined to internally displaced persons camps with little freedom of movement to pursue livelihoods, and a lack of access to adequate food, health care, and education.

On April 1, 2015, the government formally rescinded the temporary ID cards, or “white cards,” that were the last form of official government identification extended to stateless Rohingya, and stripped them of voting rights, which had been linked to the ID cards.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya fearing continued persecution and poverty have fled Burma using the services of people smugglers promising passage to Malaysia or other countries. The Arakan Project, which has long monitored Rohingya movement, estimated that approximately 28,500 Rohingya fled on boats in just the first three months of 2015. According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 300 people have died at sea from January to March.

“If Southeast Asian nations are genuinely concerned about the mass flight of Rohingya from Burma, they should demand that Burma immediately end widespread rights abuses against this most vulnerable population,” Robertson said. “Ending discriminatory policies and ensuring full security so that Rohingya can safely and with dignity return to their homes in Arakan State would be a good place to start.”