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Refugees desperate for aid caught in ‘maritime ping pong’

Malaysian officials initiated emergency, high-level talks with neighboring countries Sunday, hoping to address the more than 5,000 refugees that have been stranded at sea as they try to escape ethnic persecution and poverty in Myanmar and Bangladesh. But none of the Southeast Asian countries are welcoming the refugees, even as food and water supplies aboard the boats dwindle. Aubrey Belford of Reuters joins Hari Sreenivasan via Skype from Koh Lipe, Thailand.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In Southeast Asia, Malaysia is launching emergency high-level talks with its neighbors today, hoping to address the growing humanitarian crisis off its coast.

    More than 5,000 refugees have been stranded at sea, some for weeks, as they try to escape ethnic persecution and poverty in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

    None of the neighboring countries are welcoming the refugees. Food supplies are dwindling and fights are breaking out on board these vessels.

    I'm joined now via Skype from Koh Lipe, Thailand, by Aubrey Belford of Reuters. He has the latest.

    Now, you have been following not just the story in this country, but in other countries as well. What's happening to these people? How long are they out at sea?

  • AUBREY BELFORD, Reuters:

    What we have been hearing is that people have been out at sea for as long as three months.

    The UNHCR has reported that the exodus out of Rakhine State in Western Myanmar, which is where the Rohingya people come from, has increased quite drastically since the start of this year.

    Since 2012, there's been over 100,000 of these people fleeing Myanmar.

    And the usual route is to come through Thailand using human traffickers, who then hold them in camps in the jungle for ransom until someone can pay to get them out, to pay for their voyage.

    You know, they go on these voyages no money down. So, there's been documented murders, rapes, torture in these camps.

    What the Thai government did the other week was arrested what they say is a major trafficker, as well as Thai officials that were implicated in this.

    And what this did was, for all the thousands of people waiting at sea — thousands of them, they're waiting off the Thai coast until it's safe to come on to land and then go in these camps, where they're held for ransom, and then transferred across the border in Malaysia.

    They had nowhere to go. So, what's happened now is chaos on the sea, pretty much. You have had boatloads of people abandoned and really nowhere to go and nowhere to take them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But you started following a specific boat over the past couple of days. What's that been like?

  • AUBREY BELFORD:

    Well, we first got word of this boat at the start of last week.

    There were desperate calls coming from this boat that it was stranded. They were just a little bit north over the border in Thailand just floating out in waters not far from Koh Lipe, which is where I am now, which is a quite beautiful resort island really popular with foreign tourists.

    They were floating at sea. They have been found since and have basically been knocked back and forth between the Thai and Malaysian vessels for days.

    And, today, they were towed out west back out into the Indian Ocean towards Indonesia. And we haven't heard anything else about them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, the Thai government towed this boat back out to sea and said, Malaysia is that way?

  • AUBREY BELFORD:

    Yes.

    Now, the Thai government's line is that they would let these people in if they wanted to go to Thailand, but they said they wanted to go to Malaysia. The story is a little more murky.

    These are boats under the control of human traffickers in some cases. And we believe that is what happening in this case.

    So, the people running the boat want to bring them to Malaysia, because that's where their bosses are. The people on the boat, basically, they want to live.

    So, the Thais, we witnessed firsthand — we took a speedboat out, found this boat. We saw the Thai navy pulling them back towards Indonesia. Straight away, when they cross the border, they are intercepted by the Malaysians.

    And another one of our reporters several hours later saw the boat back again on the Thai side.

    So, it's really — it's been described by a number of people as maritime ping-pong. And, when you're there, it really looks like that. And you can see both sides of the ping-pong table.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK.

    So, these countries are planning on getting together and talking about this in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, we still have thousands of people on these boats.

  • AUBREY BELFORD:

    Yes.

    And these are desperate situations. When you pull up — you know, when we pull up beside this boat yesterday, you can see that there's serious malnutrition amongst people on board.

    I mean, we have been talking to people. We have been reporting before this crisis blew up. And the conditions are extremely bad.

    The food is very minimal. People die regularly on these boats and are dumped overboard, because, keep in mind, they're at sea for months in many cases.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, is there a possible plan that the governments can come up with in the next couple of weeks?

  • AUBREY BELFORD:

    They're being urged by a lot of international organizations to simply take these people in.

    I don't know and I haven't heard exactly what any form and agreement would take. I think that really remains to be seen.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Aubrey Belford of Reuters joining us via Skype, thanks much.

  • AUBREY BELFORD:

    Thank you.

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